Over the Limit?
Americans young and old crave high-octane fuel, and doctors are jittery
Linleigh Hawk starts the day at 5:30 a.m. by downing her first cup of coffee. She then stops at Starbucks for a grande vanilla skim latte on the way to Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Md., where she's a senior. At 3 p.m., it's time for a jumbo iced tea to power her through hip-hop dance rehearsals and yearbook meetings. Homework, which often keeps her up past 1 a.m., requires more coffee. "I've got so much to do," she says. "I've got to have the caffeine." The java-fired schedule has paid off, says Hawk: She's been accepted by 15 of her 16 college choices, including first pick Wake Forest.
Hawk may sound like an anomaly, but she isn't. Overworked and sleep- deprived Americans young and old so crave a buzz these days that even alcoholic drinks come loaded with caffeine, and doctors are getting worried. In the past three years alone, the number of 18-to-24-year-olds who drink coffee daily has doubled, from 16 percent to 31 percent-and some of them go on to pop prescription stimulants such as Adderall or Ritalin for late-night study sessions. Energy drinks like Red Bull and Cocaine, with several times the buzz of a can of Coke, have mushroomed into a $3.5 billion-a-year industry.
"I can't go out and keep up with these 20-year-olds without it," says Jeremy Freer, a 29-year-old music teacher from Virginia Beach, Va., of his Saturday-night beverage of choice: vodka with Red Bull. (Partyers can opt instead for the new double espresso-double caffeinated Van Gogh vodka or a Bud Extra, a caffeinated beer.)
Wired. Health experts understand all too well why Americans gotta get wired. People of all ages are chronically sleep deprived, from teens who catch the bus before sunrise to working mothers who report they spend less than six hours a night in bed, according to a poll released in March by the National Sleep Foundation. But we may be pushing the limits of self-medication. Poison control centers and emergency room doctors report increasing numbers of people suffering from the rapid heartbeat and nausea of a caffeine overdose-like the 14-year-old boy who earlier this year showed up at a Minneapolis emergency room in respiratory distress after washing down caffeine pills with energy drinks so he could play video games all night. Instead, he spent the night in the pediatric intensive care unit, intubated, until the caffeine exited his system. They're also seeing more teens and young adults in distress after having bought or "borrowed" stimulant drugs from friends.
And, in the extreme, there are tragedies like that of James Stone, a 19-year-old from Wallingford, Conn., who died last November of cardiac arrest after taking nearly two dozen caffeine pills. His parents say he had been putting in long hours on a job search.
Doctors are particularly troubled to see youngsters forming the caffeine habit, even as toddlers. Children's consumption of soft drinks has doubled in the past 35 years, with sodas supplanting milk. A 2003 study of Columbus, Ohio, middle schoolers found some taking in 800 milligrams of caffeine a day-more than twice the recommended maximum for adults of 300 milligrams. "Their body weight is low," says Wahida Karmally, director of nutrition for the Irving Center for Clinical Research at Columbia University Medical Center. "They can't tolerate as much caffeine as adults."