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How to Stop Binge Drinking

Binge drinking has many repercussions and may increase the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, which often develops in young adulthood.1 Excessive drinking is a common practice in the U.S., with one out of six adults consuming about eight drinks per binge episode. Tales of binge drinking on college campuses may give the impression that this problem primarily affects youth, and indeed, it is most common among young adults aged 18-34. Surprisingly, adults aged 65 and older binge drink more frequently than young adults – an average of five to six times a month.2

Binge Drinking Versus Alcoholism

Binge drinking is a drinking pattern characterized by repeated episodes of heavy alcohol consumption, leading to high levels of intoxication. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood-alcohol concentration to a minimum of 0.08 grams. Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks on the same occasion on at least one day in the past 30 days for men and four drinks for women. An estimated 90% of binge drinkers are not dependent on alcohol, although binge drinking is a risk factor for developing alcoholism.2,3 The primary difference is alcoholism involves dependence on alcohol, and like other addictions, is a chronic disease. Binge drinking, however, also has a wide array of negative repercussions.

Binge Drinking Facts and Stats

  • In 2015, 138.3 million Americans aged 12 or older reported current use of alcohol, with 66.7 million of those reporting past-month binge drinking.4
  • About 92% of U.S. adults who drank excessively reported binge drinking in the past 30 days.2
  • In a single year, more than 696,000 college students aged 18-24 were assaulted by another student who had been drinking and an additional 599,000 were injured because of drinking.2
  • About 474,000 college students had unprotected sex as a result of drinking and 97,000 were the victims of alcohol-related sexual assaults.2
  • The first, large population-based alcohol study on older adults in the U.S. analyzed drinking patterns and mortality risk in 4,691 adults aged 60 and older. An estimated 69% of at-risk drinkers were identified as such due to the excessive amount of alcohol consumed in the presence of relevant comorbidities (e.g. drinking 2-3 drinks per day, gout, anxiety or taking pain medications).5

Health Risks of Binge Drinking

Many health-related risks are associated with excessive alcohol intake, some immediate and others long term. Binge drinking can cause unintentional injuries (e.g. vehicular accidents, falls, burns and drowning), intentional injuries (e.g. firearm injuries, sexual assault and domestic violence) and in some cases may lead to full-blown alcohol use disorder.2

In several cross-sectional studies, impairments in executive brain function were identified as risk factors for continued binge drinking among young adults aged 18-25. The studies indicated young adult binge drinkers have aberrations in risky and ambiguous decision-making, working memory, inhibition and response-monitoring. It is unknown whether these aberrations are predispositions or consequences of alcohol use. Prospective studies in adolescent populations have identified aberrations in prefrontal functions, as a predisposition for and a consequence of heavy alcohol consumption.1

Health Risks in Older Adults

Substantial differences exist between older and younger adults’ response to alcohol, the majority of which stem from physiological changes related to aging, thereby increasing the risks of alcohol consumption in older adults. Moreover, adults aged of 65 and older are more likely to be affected by at least one chronic illness and take multiple medications, which can make them more vulnerable to the negative effects of alcohol consumption. The following age-related changes significantly impact the manner in which an older drinker responds to alcohol: a decrease in body water, increased sensitivity, decreased tolerance and slow metabolism of alcohol in the gastrointestinal tract. Although alcohol has negative physical and mental health effects on people of all ages, the interaction of age-related physiological changes and consumption of alcohol can trigger the following serious issues or exacerbate existing comorbidities in older adults.6

  • Increased risk of hypertension, cardiac arrhythmia, myocardial infarction and cardiomyopathy
  • Increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke
  • Impaired immune system and ability to combat infection and cancer
  • Cirrhosis and other liver diseases
  • Decreased bone density
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding
  • Depression, anxiety and other mental health problems
  • Malnutrition6

Among individuals whose average alcohol consumption is moderate, drinking can follow a regular pattern or one including heavy episodic or binge drinking on weekends. In fact, nearly 50% of all binge drinking episodes among U.S. adults occur among moderate drinkers. At the onset of a 20-year study involving 446 moderate drinkers (aged 55-65 at baseline), 74 participants (17%) engaged in episodic heavy drinking and 372 participants (83%) were regular moderate drinkers. Compared to moderate drinkers who were episodic heavy drinkers, regular moderate drinkers had a significantly higher socioeconomic status and lower rates of obesity, smoking, depressive symptoms, and lower avoidance coping scores. The latter reflects a variety of behavioral coping responses to avoid or deal with life stressors (e.g. drinking alcohol). During the 20-year follow-up period, it was determined that 45 moderate drinkers who engaged in episodic heavy drinking had died (mortality rate: 61%), while 137 regular moderate drinkers had died (mortality rate: 37%). Episodic heavy drinking was associated with more than two times an increase in the odds of total mortality during the 20-year period, confirming the researchers’ theory that episodic heavy drinking is significantly riskier than regular moderate drinking.7

Binge Drinking Interventions

During an intervention, the family can outline the risks of binge drinking, and point out specific instances where the person’s behavior was dangerous or otherwise unacceptable. In a standard intervention, the person exhibiting the destructive behavior is asked to enter inpatient addiction treatment, which includes intensive addiction counseling and may require medically supervised detox. Binge drinkers who do not exhibit signs of alcoholism may not require this level of treatment. A series of four to five short therapy sessions with a qualified interventionist may suffice in getting them to change their drinking behaviors.8

There have been several studies analyzing the efficacy of text-based alcohol interventions. A randomized trial tested this type of intervention on three groups of 765 people aged18-25 who were discharged from four urban emergency departments in western Pennsylvania. The control group received standard care and no text messages and the self-monitoring group received text messages once a week inquiring about drinking habits without any feedback. The full group received a text message on Thursdays, inquiring about weekend drinking plans, followed by a second text on Sundays asking about the actual drinking that transpired. The response included individualized feedback targeted at reducing alcohol consumption. Six months after the conclusion of the trial, the participants who were exposed to the full text-message intervention reported an average of one less binge-drinking day per month and there was a 12% reduction in binge drinking incidence. There were no improvements in the other two groups.9

How to Stop Drinking

Although there is not a universal best way to stop drinking, the above mentioned interventions, 12-step programs and self-help strategies are effective for some people. Acknowledging the problem and assessing the negative consequences are the first steps. Avoiding people and situations that encourage binge drinking can also help. The success of these programs and strategies depends on many variables, but foremost is the person’s willingness to moderate his or her behavior and commit to a long-term solution. Many people, whether adults or youth, find they cannot change their binge-drinking patterns and decide to seek addiction treatment. During therapy, the therapist and client work together on uncovering and changing the underlying issues responsible for this behavior.

If you or a loved one is struggling with binge drinking or alcohol dependence, The Right Step has programs to help you overcome this problem. Call us today at 844-877-1781.

  1. Bø R, Billieux J, Gjerde LC, Eilertsen EM, Landrø NI. Do Executive Functions Predict Binge-Drinking Patterns? Evidence from a Longitudinal Study in Young Adulthood. Front Psychol. 2017;8:489. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00489.
  2. Fact Sheets – Binge Drinking. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm Updated October 16, 2015. Accessed May 30, 2017.
  3. Esser MB, Hedden SL, Kanny D, Brewer RD, Gfroerer JC, Naimi TS. Prevalence of Alcohol Dependence Among US Adult Drinkers, 2009–2011. Prev Chronic Dis. 2014;11:140329. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5888/pcd11.140329.
  4. Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-FFR1-2015/NSDUH-FFR1-2015/NSDUH-FFR1-2015.htm Published September 2016. Accessed May 30, 2017.
  5. Moore AA, Giuli L, Gould R, et al. Alcohol use, comorbidity, and mortality. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2006;54:757–762.
  6. Substance Abuse Among Older Adults: Chapter 2 – Alcohol. NCBI website. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64412/ Accessed May 30, 2017.
  7. Holahan CJ, Brennan PL, Schutte KK, Holahan CK, Moos RH. Episodic Heavy Drinking and 20-Year Total Mortality Among Late-Life Moderate Drinkers. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2014;38(5):1432-1438. doi:10.1111/acer.12381.
  8. Binge Drinking. Intervention Support website. http://www.interventionsupport.com/binge-drinking/ Accessed May 30, 2017.
  9. Pietzak R. Texting Can Slow Binge Drinking. Pitt Chronicle. December 7, 2015. https://www.chronicle.pitt.edu/story/texting-can-slow-binge-drinking Accessed May 30, 2017.
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