The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report this week that includes some surprising data about binge drinking. The CDC classifies binge drinking as a public health issue, and the agency has the data to back up the claim. Studies show that binging costs more than 40,000 lives per year and is a major risk factor in a number of health problems, including hypertension and fetal alcohol syndrome. It’s also a major contributor to social problems, with motor vehicle accidents at the top of the list.

Those of us familiar with binge drinking problems on college campuses in Oregon and elsewhere will have expected one finding: The 18- to 24-year-old group has the most binge drinkers. The 28 percent of respondents in this group who reported binging in the last 30 days consumed about 9.3 drinks during each of their binging episode (4.2 per month). The vast majority of alcohol consumed by youths — 90 percent — is consumed during binges.

However, respondents age 65 and above binge more often than any other age group. While only 3.8 percent binged, they did so 5.5 times per month. Binging accounts for half of all alcohol consumed by adults.

Men were twice as likely to binge as women, and people with higher incomes were more likely to binge. Among respondents who earned more than $75,000 per year, 20.2 percent binged close to four times a month, having more than seven drinks per episode.

The study was conducted during 2010, when the agency asked 458,000 U.S. men and women, age 18 and up, about their drinking habits over the last 30 days. The CDC defines binge drinking for women as four or more drinks over a two-hour period. For men, the number of drinks increases to five (or more) in two hours.

A full 85 percent of people who reported binge drinking in 2010 also reported alcohol-impaired driving episodes. Studies show that most binge drinkers are not alcohol-dependent.

The report includes recommendations for government policies and programs that will help to reduce binge drinking. We will put off that discussion until a future post.

Source: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, “Vital Signs: Binge Drinking Prevalence, Frequency, and Intensity Among Adults – United States, 2010,” Jan. 13, 2012