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The Surprising Risks of Energy Drinks for Boomers

The caffeine jolt of these popular beverages could land you in the hospital

By Rita Rubin | January 30, 2013

Energy drinks and energy shots, which have soared in popularity with adolescents and young adults in recent years, have also begun gaining traction in the boomer market. But new government data shows that these intensely caffeinated beverages come with some serious health risks for those of us in middle age and beyond.

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The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported earlier this month that, from 2007 to 2011, the number of emergency room visits involving the consumption of non-alcoholic energy drinks doubled across the United States, to 20,783 from 10,068. But for adults 40 and older, such visits nearly quadrupled during the same period, to 5,233 from 1,382. The implication: The older you are, the greater the risk.

Increasing Demand

The SAMHSA report did not specify the exact symptoms that brought energy drinkers to emergency rooms, but most patients commonly complained of headaches, anxiety, an irregular heartbeat and heart attack. "Consumption of energy drinks is a rising public health problem because medical and behavioral problems can result from excessive caffeine intake," the agency said in its report, urging doctors to "discourage use of energy drinks by explaining that perceived health benefits are largely due to marketing techniques rather than scientific evidence."

A separate study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that younger boomers are turning to sports and energy drinks in increasing numbers. That study analyzed data from the 2010 National Health Interview Survey and found that people age 40 to 59 were more than three times as likely as those over 60 to consume one or more of these beverages every week and more than three times less likely to opt for such products than Americans 18 to 24, the group that imbibes them most frequently. (The survey lumped together energy drinks, like Red Bull, and sports drinks, like Gatorade.)

Among boomers, consumption of energy drinks "is increasing, but it's still low," says Sohyun Park, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the lead author of the consumption study.

"I think what we're seeing here is the tip of the iceberg" in terms of boomer demand, says Dave Weigelt, co-founder of Immersion Active, a Maryland-based Internet marketing company that focuses on people 50 and older. Weigelt says he recently attended Life@50+, an annual expo hosted by AARP, and was surprised to find attendees swarming booths where energy drink samples were being handed out. The SAMHSA report indicated that so-called energy shots, like 5-Hour Energy, appear to be especially popular with older Americans.

What Can Go Wrong

Energy drinks promise consumers a safe boost, but manufacturers keep their recipes private, so consumers can't be sure exactly what they're getting. A can might list caffeine as an ingredient, but manufacturers are not required to specify just how much of the stimulant is in the product. SAMHSA reports that the amount of caffeine in a single can of an energy drink can range from 80 milligrams to more than 500, compared with 100 milligrams in a five-ounce cup of coffee, or 50 milligrams in a 12-ounce can of cola. A shot of 5-Hour Energy contains about 215 milligrams, according to Consumer Reports testing. And some energy products, Park believes, may contain the equivalent of 14 cans of cola, enough to cause seizures or cardiac arrest in some consumers. The Food and Drug Administration says it's safe for healthy adults to consume up to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day.

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Energy drinks have come under repeated fire in recent months for the potential health risks of their concentrated caffeine. One FDA report found that 5-Hour Energy might have been involved in 13 deaths since 2009; in a separate finding, the FDA reported that five people had died in the past three years after drinking Monster Energy, which carries warnings against use by children under 12 and those who are "sensitive" to caffeine.

"Caffeine itself generally is thought to be one of the safest performance-enhancing drugs," says Dr. Stephen Meldon, director of emergency services at the Cleveland Clinic, but age and underlying conditions like cardiovascular disease can exacerbate the stimulant's effects.

Highly concentrated doses of caffeine, Park says, have been linked to cardiac problems, like abnormally fast heart rate; the clotting or clumping of platelets; and impaired function of the endothelium, the layer of cells that lines blood vessels, which is associated with high blood pressure and blood clots. In addition, Park notes, a high dose of caffeine can produce negative side effects when it interacts with medications, including bronchodilators, antibiotics and antipsychotics.
 
Downing highly caffeinated energy drinks is like taking a heart stress test, Meldon says. Younger people can tolerate the effects, like insomnia and palpitations, better than older people can. If someone 50 or above came into his emergency room complaining of chest discomfort and palpitations, Meldon says he'd admit them for observation in case they were having a heart attack. "We need to be cautious in this age group," he says, "because of underlying medical conditions."
 
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When energy drinks are mixed with alcohol, the risks increase, Meldon says. Caffeine can mask signs of intoxication, making people who are intoxicated less aware that they're impaired and more likely to take risks like driving drunk. Plus, alcohol and caffeine are both diuretics, which could leave you dehydrated, especially if you're already taking a water pill to treat high blood pressure or fluid retention. Many energy drinks are also packed with amino acids like taurine, whose benefits are dubious and whose side effects are unclear, Meldon says.

All the more reason to get your daily caffeine from known quantities, like coffee and tea. (Discover 11 other natural ways to increase your energy from Next Avenue.)


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