Binge drinking, frequently defined as consuming five or more drinks per occasion, is associated with a host of societal and health risks.  Young adults have higher risk for negative consequences of binge drinking (e.g. health and psychosocial consequences such as impaired memory, accidental injuries, violence, risky sexual behaviors, and poor academic performance) than other age groups.  Furthermore, women typically are more vulnerable to such negative consequences than men.  In the past, binge drinking usually escalated in late adolescence and the early 20s, followed by a period of “maturing out” (i.e., declining use) afterwards. It is unknown whether this developmental pattern for binge drinking has changed over time or whether it differs between men and women.  These questions have important implications for efforts to prevent alcohol-related problems.

Researchers utilized data from the Monitoring the Future study, which recruits cohorts of 12th grade students from across the United States to complete questionnaires. A subset of participants (n = 58,019) was followed through age 30, allowing for a longitudinal analysis of alcohol use patterns. On the questionnaire, participants were asked how many times they consumed 5 or more drinks in the preceding two weeks.  Results showed that the age at which binge drinking is most prevalent has increased over time (from age 20 to 22 for women, 21 to 23 for men). Further, after controlling for other factors that could alter these patterns, women from more recent cohorts (groups of women) reported a significantly higher prevalence of binge drinking from ages 21 to 30 than women in earlier cohorts. Although men in more recent cohorts reported higher binge drinking prevalence at ages 25-26 than in earlier cohorts, by age 30 binge drinking prevalence returned to levels seen previously.

The authors concluded that the increased age of peak binge drinking and the longer period of time over which individuals engage in high levels of binge drinking likely confer greater risks associated with such drinking, both to drinkers themselves and those around them. Thus, prevention and intervention efforts regarding high-risk alcohol use for young adults, particularly women, are strongly encouraged.

Journal Link: Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research