Binge drinking among college students has been in the headlines for years. It was first addressed as a problem in its own right, then later as an underlying factor in campus sexual assaults.

But new research released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that middle-aged adults are also prone to binge drinking, or drinking five or more beverages in a matter of hours. Three in four deaths from blood alcohol poisoning involved adults between the ages of 34 and 65, the agency found. Just 5 percent involved people younger than 24.

“We know that most of the binge drink episodes are among people 26 and older. Contrary to popular wisdom, there’s a lot of binge drinking going on among people who are beyond college age,” said Dr. Bob Brewer, leader of the CDC’s alcohol program and a co-author of the study.

There are 1.5 million episodes of binge drinking in the United States every year. An average of six Americans died from alcohol poisoning every day from 2010 to 2012, totaling 2,200 deaths, according to the CDC. Three in four of those who died were men.

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Risk Is Hard to Pin Down

So, were those who died hopeless alcoholics? Apparently not. Alcoholism was identified as a contributing factor in less than one-third of the cases.

Brewer and his co-author Ileana Arias, Ph.D., suggest that alcohol poisoning can sneak up on drinkers. The risk increases dramatically when drinkers exceed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 grams per deciliter, they said. That number is also the legal limit for driving a car.

How many drinks it takes to push blood alcohol concentration over that threshold depends on a number of factors: the drinker’s weight, how much he or she eats before and while drinking, and whether he or she also takes prescription or illicit drugs.

“The key point is this: The more you drink, the greater your risk for poisoning and death,” said Arias.  

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The study data did not specify what those who died were drinking or how many drinks they’d had. But other studies have found that adults who binge drink generally drink beer and consume an average of eight beers at a sitting.

Signs of alcohol poisoning include vomiting, the inability to wake up, low body temperature, and bluish skin tone.

Local Liquor Laws Affect Death Rates

The vast majority of alcohol poisoning deaths involved white men. But as a percentage of population, Native Americans and Native Alaskans were more likely to die from it.

“The common characteristic that Alaska Natives and American Indians share is when they binge drink, they drink at high levels. Among those who do binge drink, they tend to drink a lot when they do,” Brewer said.

While Alaska had the most deaths per million of any state, at 47, in Alabama that number was just 5. Alabama requires alcohol retailers to be licensed and has one of the highest alcohol taxes in the country.

The cost of alcohol and the number of places to buy it play a major role in which communities suffer the largest effects of binge drinking, the researchers said. For example, when the price of alcohol rises 10 percent, consumption declines by 7 percent.

The CDC suggest that new legislation will have to play a role in bringing down rates of binge drinking. But individuals can also take basic precautions, such as keeping alcohol consumption to one to two drinks per day, and avoiding caffeine while drinking, as it can mask the effects of alcohol.

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