More young men and women are binge-drinking into their mid- and late-20s today than a generation ago, increasing their risk of accidental injuries, deaths and a variety of chronic illnesses, researchers say.
Historically, binge drinking among both men and women has tended to increase from age 18 through the early 20s then subside afterwards, the authors of a recent study note in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
For the current analysis, researchers followed 58,012 high school graduates from 1976 to 2004, tracking their drinking habits from graduation through age 30. During the study period, the peak age for binge drinking by women rose from 20 to 22, and from 21 to 23 among men.
By the end of the study, more women were continuing to binge drink from ages 21 through 30 and more men were still binge drinking at ages 25 to 26 than had been the case in the past, the analysis also found.
"We have certainly seen a lot of social changes during the past 30 years in many areas of life," said lead study author Megan Patrick of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
"The average ages of marriage and childbearing have increased, more young adults attend college and fewer of them are employed, which all likely contribute to the continuation of binge drinking further into the twenties," Patrick said by email. "However, even after we control for these factors (attending college, being employed, marital status, and parenthood) we still see that young adults are drinking later into their twenties."
Binge drinking involves having five or more drinks at one time, and surveys used in the study asked participants how often they did this over the previous two weeks. Doing it just once qualified people as binge drinkers in the study.
Across all of the graduating classes in the analysis, about 32 percent of participants reported binge drinking at age 18. This proportion rose to 41 percent by age 21, then gradually declined to 28 percent by age 30.
The study wasn't designed to determine what factors might have caused shifts in the peak ages of binge drinking for men and women, and it also didn't examine physical or mental health outcomes related to binge drinking.
A limitation of the study is that it only included high school students in the 12th grade, which may underestimate overall drinking habits because dropouts are more likely to have alcohol use problems than youth who stay in school, the study authors note.
Even so, the results suggest that prevention efforts focused primarily on adolescents and college students may also need to target young adults, said Dr. Justine Welsh, director of addiction services at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, Georgia.
"Binge drinking can result in negative social, psychological, and medical outcomes at any age," Welsh, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.
"Binge drinking is linked with memory/learning problems, contracting sexually transmitted diseases and being diagnosed with chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, stroke and certain types of cancer later in life," Welsh said.
"Delayed onset of alcohol use is still the most effect prevention strategy," Welsh added. "However, for those who are already drinking alcohol, make sure to stay within the recognized guidelines."
For men, that's no more than four drinks on any single day, and no more than 14 drinks a week, Welsh said. For women, that's no more than three drinks a day and no more than 14 a week.