Alcohol

The Hazards of Not Drinking

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This morning Radley Balko noted a new study, reported in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, that not only confirms the health advantage drinkers have over teetotalers but finds that even heavy drinkers tend to live longer than abstainers. The study, which tracked 1,800 subjects for 20 years, beginning when they were between 55 and 65, is notable because it controlled for a long list of potential confounding variables, including socioeconomic status, past alcohol abuse, and pre-existing illness. "Even after adjusting for all covariates," the researchers report, "abstainers and heavy drinkers continued to show increased mortality risks of 51 and 45%, respectively, compared to moderate drinkers." In other words, mortality among teetotalers was higher than mortality among heavy drinkers—a striking result, given the well-established health risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption. Time's John Cloud and Slate's Brian Palmer discuss possible explanations for alcohol's health benefits, including its impact on HDL cholesterol, blood flow, stress, and social integration.

In July I discussed the perenially controversial treatment of alcohol's health benefits in the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a new edition of which will be published soon. A 2006 Reason Foundation study suggested that drinking has financial benefits as well. In 2008 I noted Cloud's perceptive critique of "the all-or-nothing approach to alcohol."

NEXT: Overdose Online

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  1. The biggest hazard is sobriety, which is just horrible.

  2. Let’s drink to the good news!

  3. But if people drink they might be happy, uninhibited and start to think for themselves. Whatever the health benefits, the drawbacks of that happening will prevent the government from ever endorsing drinking.

    1. The government should not be in the business of endorsing anything.

      1. That is nice but sadly you are pissing in the wind if you think they will stop endorsing things.

        1. Really? Maybe we both should stop commenting here, as our words are ineffectual. You first.

          1. Pissing in the wind is a great American pass time.

            1. Not to mention quite refreshing…

            2. So is spewing bullshit, John. They had Prohibiiton on alcohol once, remember? They repealed it. Government learns lessons every so often. Not frequently enough, but it does. Now, don’t you have a segment of “My Name Is Earl” to watch?

              1. Glen Beck said something pretty neat about that. He said the 21st repealed the 18th, but the 18th is still there. So why wasn’t it removed? Because like a scar, it needs to be there to remind people that they did something stupid.

                I watch Glen Beck once in a while and he seems pretty rational to me.

            3. And often necessary, if you binge drink alcohol in public areas.

              Not that I would know anything about that, however.

  4. I’m sorry, I stopped listening to gov’t guidelines for health a long time ago. They want to kill you as quick as possible.

    1. Well, duh, they have to make ends meet somehow, what with Medicare, Social Security, and Obamacare.

    2. If you’re dead who will pay your taxes?

      1. You heirs will pay your taxes out of your estate. Starting Jan 1, 2011, it will be 18% of the first 10,000 and the % goes up from there. If the socialists get enough power, you can expect those rates to rise even more.

  5. The study, which tracked 1,800 subjects for 20 years, beginning when they were between 55 and 65, is notable because it controlled for a long list of potential confounding variables, including socioeconomic status, past alcohol abuse, and pre-existing illness.

    Did they control for whether people enjoyed life?

  6. I drink in Moderation.

    It’s a pub about a block from my office.

  7. You are framing this quite oddly.

    The results show a significant benefit for moderate drinkers.

    But calling it an increased risk to not drink would be like saying you are at increased risk not taking any other medication.

    The results seem to say, there is a significant benefit to drinking that goes away when your dose goes beyond a certain point.

    1. Maybe. The greatest benefit is 1-3 drinks per day. However, even people who drank more than 3/day lived longer than people who did not drink. The data are not presented in such a way to say what the dose is that life expectancy is lower than total abstinence.

    2. Probably the best way to look at it.

      Although it looks like no matter how much you drink, there is a benefit over not drinking.

      1. That is definitely not true (the “no matter how much you drink” part). You can definitely kill yourself with excessive drinking. IF you drink enough to kill your liver, you are not going to live longer than your average non-drinker.

        1. And if you drink enough to kill your autonomous nervous system (.50 BAC or so), you are not going to live to tomorrow.

        2. That’s what the five cups of coffee are for: http://www.cosic.org/coffee-an…..cirrhosis. And moderate drinking is a waste of alcohol.

    3. Good point, Neu Mejican. Might as well tell people to become religious since the religious claim to be happier.

    4. Moderation = Torture

      1. For some of us, moderation means the wine won’t overpower the dinner one has worked so hard to put on the table. If that’s torture, strap me to the gurney.

    5. Although it looks like no matter how much you drink, there is a benefit over not drinking.

      That is definitely not true. Their “heavy drinking group” includes a wide range of behaviors. It is well established that you can set the “heavy drinking” bar at a higher value and demonstrate a significant risk compared to non-drinkers. The essentially equal risk seen in this study is likely a function of the low-bar set for “heavy drinking group.” It includes a bunch of people who are still getting some benefits (as they are just above the “beneficial moderate drinking cut-off”) as well as some who are not increasing their risk any (as they are drinking too much for benefit, but not enough for harm). Most of the increased risk comes from those that are drinking at higher levels. Change that cut-off/definition of “heavy drinking” and you would see a much different result.

      1. Indeed. Some cohort must include the tail. That does not mean the tail is as healthy as the average of the cohort.

  8. Shit. I’ve been drinking heavily everyday for at least the last 10 years expecting it to cut off those final drooling, pissing my pants years.

    This sucks.

    1. I knew a few heavy drinkers who reached the “drooling, pissing my pants years” before graduation. At least, they were that way most weekends.

  9. The last time I checked, the mortality rate is 100%. Enjoy the ride.

  10. Since I’m 53, I suppose that means I should ramp things up to ensure I can survive another 20 years.

  11. The way things are going, a longer life seems more of a curse than a blessing. I’ll order a double ginger ale next time I’m at the bar.

    1. That would go well with your dollar-sign cigs.

      1. Hey, those are all-natural dammit!

  12. I had an ex-girlfriend with some health problems, one of which required her to take Methotrexate. This has some nasty side effects when combined with alcohol, and she avoided drinking entirely.

    As much as I want the public health drones to be wrong, mightn’t teetotalers be people whose pre-existing health problems cause them to avoid alcohol, and also have a shorter average lifespan? I understand the study controlled for a lot of variables, but that still doesn’t mean that X causes Y rather than vice-versa.

    1. Some of us are just losers.

    2. Exactly, dude. Excluding people with pre-existing conditions and such does little to fix the limitations of an observational study like this. What they’d really have to do to go beyond correlation is to randomize people to 2 groups: one required to abstain, and one required to booze hardcore. That’d really be rolling the dice to sign up for that study.

      Since all we can do is speculate with the data from the study, it seems more likely to me that healthy people are more likely to choose to drink heavily.

  13. “…that not only confirms the health advantage drinkers have over teetotalers but finds that even heavy drinkers tend to live longer than abstainers.”

    Reminds me of the old joke about the two old ladies in a restaurant, where one of them says, “This food tastes awful.”, and the other one says, “And the portions are too small!”

    Surely, there are good reasons not to drink that have nothing to do with the health benefits. God knows, I didn’t waste a drop of my youth, but you can find some sorry ass people over 40 sitting in your neighborhood dive mid-afternoon–and it ain’t like on Cheers.

    My office used to be on top of one of those places, and I was comin’ down the stairs one day, in the middle of the afternoon, and I see the bartender sitting outside smoking a cigarette, and I said, “How come you’re not inside working?”

    “Oh, the power’s out.”, She says.

    “Well that’s gonna kill your tips!”

    “Oh, no”, she says, “all my customers are still in there drinking in the dark–it’s just like when they’re at home.”

    I really don’t want an awful, drunken, long life. To get those extra health benefits, there’s gotta be a better way.

    1. I really don’t want an awful, drunken, long life. To get those extra health benefits, there’s gotta be a better way.

      Maybe you missed the part where the health benefits peak out for moderate drinking?

      1. I was reacting to the suggestion that “even heavy drinkers tend to live longer than abstainers”.

        I suspect there’s something more to that, a situation where maybe other things aren’t equal…

        How’s that work with heavy drinkers who jog more than 10 miles a week? Do they live longer than abstainers who jog more than 10 miles a week?

        I doubt it.

        I get the questioning common assumptions and misconceptions bit, but sometimes…living a long life as a “heavy drinker” is what it is.

        1. I tried to get to the definition of a heavy drinker but the study isn’t available to me. However, one would assume that heavy drinking isn’t defined as the derelict in the alley with a bottle of Night Train in a paper bag who drinks until he loses consciousness and then repeats upon awakening.

          1. and unfortunately that derelict probably has medicaid health insurance. They believe alcoholism is a disease; he will get a new liver on our dime as long as he is sober for a week before the transplant.

  14. mightn’t teetotalers be people whose pre-existing health problems cause them to avoid alcohol, and also have a shorter average lifespan?

    They did control for pre-existing conditions.

    And, of course, most tee-totalers are that way by choice, not medical necessity.

  15. I needed some good news.

    1. No. But I just clicked on your link. Do you get credit for the click-through?

      1. I’ll send Slate a bill.

    2. That you, Weigel?

  16. The Wine Commonsewer will not be surprised.

  17. Rule Number 1: No one shall ever be caught not drinking!

  18. Well, my grandfather was a teetotaler who died at 75. My father drinks a considerable ration of bourbon every night. He’s pushing 82 and healthy as can be. Still splits his own firewood. So, there you have it.

  19. “To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems”

  20. You’ve managed to instantly lose all credibility. There’s a significant portion of drinkers who can’t have 1 to 3 drinks. They’re called alcoholics and they have a much shorter life span than teetotalers.

    You’re no better than the regular news outlet who lacks the ability to look at medical news critically and look only to generate an attention-grabbing headline.

    Congrats, you’ve gone mainstream!

    1. This isn’t the first study to reach the conclusion that life expectancy at 65 (or in this case, 55) is greater for people that drink than for those that don’t.

  21. The study, which tracked 1,800 subjects for 20 years, beginning when they were between 55 and 65, is notable because it controlled for a long list of potential confounding variables, including socioeconomic status, past alcohol abuse, and pre-existing illness”

    Couldn’t this be explained by a large number of the most vulnerable drunks already being dead by 55? They’re pre-selecting for cast iron livers.

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