PhotoBinge eating is a widespread food disorder and binge TV viewing is getting to be a problem for the couch potato set. But neither can compete with the original binge behavior -- binge drinking. Now there's growing concern about "extreme binge" drinking.

A new study finds that nearly 32 million adults in the United States (13 percent of the U.S. population aged 18 and older) consumed more than twice the number of drinks considered binge drinking on at least one occasion during 2013, the year covered by the survey, and many went well beyond that.

“This important study reveals that a large number of people in the United States drink at very high levels and underscores the dangers associated with such ‘extreme’ binge drinking,” said George F. Koob, Ph.D, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). “Of the nearly 90,000 people who die from alcohol each year, more than half, or 50,000, die from injuries and overdoses associated with high blood alcohol levels.”

Binge drinking is defined as having four or more drinks on a single occasion for women, or five or more drinks for men. It can produce blood alcohol levels greater than 0.08 percent, which is the legal limit for driving in the United States.

Reaching this level is well known to increase the risk of harm to the drinker and others. However, evidence suggests that many people drink far beyond four or five drinks per occasion, defined as extreme binge drinking.

Three levels of binge drinking

The current study analyzed three levels of past-year binge drinking - Levels I, II, and III. These levels were defined as four to seven drinks, eight to 11 drinks, and 12 or more drinks on a single occasion for women; and five to nine drinks, 10-14 drinks, and 15 or more drinks on a single occasion for men.

Researchers analyzed data from recent studies and found that in the 2012–2013 survey, 39 percent of adult males and 27 percent of adult females reported Level I binge drinking during the previous year. Eleven percent of males reported Level II binge drinking (two times the binge drinking threshold for adult males) at least once in the past year, and 7 percent reported Level III binge drinking (three times the binge threshold) at least once in the past year. Five percent of females reported Level II binge drinking (two times the binge drinking threshold for adult females) at least once in the past year, and 3 percent reported Level III binge drinking (three times the binge threshold) at least once in the past year. 

After controlling for age, race, sex, marital status, education, drug use, and smoking, compared to people who did not binge drink, people who drank at the various binge levels were much more likely to experience an alcohol-related emergency department visit; have an alcohol use disorder; be injured because of drinking; be arrested or have legal problems resulting from alcohol use; or be the driver in an alcohol-related traffic crash.  

Extreme binge drinking was particularly common among study participants who used other drugs. This is a concern because combining alcohol with other drugs can increase the risk of injuries and overdose deaths.

“Drinking at such high levels can suppress areas of the brain that control basic life-support functions such as breathing and heart rate, thereby increasing one’s risk of death,” said senior author, Aaron White, Ph.D., Senior Scientific Advisor to the NIAAA Director. “The risk increases further if other sedative drugs, particularly opioids or benzodiazepines, are added to the mix.”

The study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.


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