Experts on alcohol abuse have found one demographic group that's drinking at an alarming rate. Not teenagers. Not college-age people. It's baby boomers.
For reasons not well understood, teenage and college-age Americans today are consuming alcohol at lower rates than young people 10 years ago, according to the Monitoring the Future study at the University of Michigan.
The most widely discussed hypothesis is that young people have changed the way they organize their social lives today, said Katherine Keyes, a Columbia University professor of epidemiology who has tracked drinking trends.
That might make some sense at first glance, since teenagers a generation or two ago were more likely to meet in the parking lot behind the school gym and hope someone brought a cooler of beer. But Keyes notes that this downward trend started well before the advent of smartphones and social media. She points, instead, to cigarettes and the successful antismoking campaigns of recent decades. That may have had a cascading effect among young people. Cigarettes, Keyes said, are often the first thing teenagers experiment with, and can function as a "gateway drug" to alcohol. But smoking isn't cool anymore, and teen smoking has dropped dramatically.
She also suggested young people raised in relatively affluent times are more likely to adopt a "slow life strategy" in which they postpone many of the activities that a previous generation would have adopted at an early age. "You're sort of cocooned where you don't have to make that transition to adulthood so quickly," she said.
Nationally, alcohol consumption presents a complicated picture. Overall, drinking is relatively flat, according to Aaron White, senior scientific adviser at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). But if young people aren't drinking as much as they used to, that means some other cohort is drinking more heavily.
That's where the boomers make their (tipsy?) entrance.
There are generational trends in alcohol consumption, and one that's been known for half a century is that baby boomers tend to like alcohol more than the "silent generation" that preceded them. As the silents move on to their reward, and as the boomers (the cohort of people born between 1946 and 1964) age, the boomers make up a greater portion of the 65-plus age bracket tracked by researchers who study alcohol consumption.
Researchers see a steady rise in alcohol use and binge drinking – as well as what's known as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), an umbrella term for mild, moderate and severe abuse of alcohol – in the 65-plus demographic. Between 2005 and 2014, the percentage of older Americans who reported engaging in past-month binge drinking (defined as women consuming four or more drinks in about two hours, and men consuming five or more) increased from 12.5 percent to 14.9 percent, according to the NIAAA. The increase in drinking among older Americans is most pronounced among people with greater levels of education and income, and among women.
When 70 is the new 50, it's still cocktail hour when the sun crosses the yardarm. At continuing care communities, alcohol is typically available as a social lubricant for the majority of residents who haven't graduated to assisted living, said Daniel Blazer, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Duke.
"We know that if you drink the same amount of alcohol as you get older you're going to have increasing problems with side effects from that alcohol," Blazer said. "The baby boomers are carrying a heavier load of alcohol use than the people who are currently in the Silent Generation."
Excessive drinking contributes to 88,000 deaths and costs $249 billion annually in the United States, according to Robert Brewer, head of the alcohol program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said binge drinking contributes to about half of those deaths and three-quarters of the economic costs. He urges people to follow the government's dietary guidelines, which describe low-risk drinking as one drink daily for women and two for men.
"Compliance with the current Dietary Guidelines is relatively poor," Brewer said.
Men traditionally have been much heavier users of alcohol, but the gender gap has virtually disappeared among young people. New data show girls are more likely to drink in 10th grade than boys, and college women are more likely to binge drink than college men. Visits to emergency rooms for alcohol-related problems have increased among older people and women, White said.
All of this would seem ripe for a public health campaign focused on informing the public about the risks of excessive drinking. But Blazer said alcohol so far has been "given a pass," compared with tobacco and other drugs.
Instead, many boomers have embraced the notion that moderate drinking is good for them, compared to abstaining. The evidence there is mixed. A number of studies have shown a reduction in heart attacks among moderate drinkers. But a new study published in the Lancet last week showed no overall improvement in life expectancy among people who had one drink a day compared to those who abstained, and a decrease in life expectancy with any additional drinking. The study's authors concluded that the reduction in heart attacks was offset by other health risks.
The NIAAA is funding a study on the health effects of moderate drinking, but that is now mired in a controversy after news reports showing that the alcohol industry is helping to fund the investigation via a private foundation that supports the National Institutes of Health. NIH Director Francis Collins has launched an internal investigation of the study and the relationship between the researchers and representatives of the alcohol industry.