People who suffer from social and psychological problems caused by drinking are at greater risk of death than those who participate in physically hazardous drinking behaviors, according to a new study at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
The research, which involved about 40,000 people, showed that participants who had been the target of an intervention by family members, friends or doctors had a 67 percent greater risk of death over the 18-year study period, said lead study author Dr. Richard Rogers, a professor of sociology.
Those who had pulled away from social or sports activities because of alcohol use had a 46 percent higher risk of death over the same period.
In contrast, actions such as driving after drinking too much or engaging in other physically risky behaviors did not result in a significant increase in mortality rates, he said.
The findings also revealed that the social risks of drinking, from losing jobs to having spouses threaten to leave, were equally or more strongly linked to mortality than physiological consequences of alcohol abuse like withdrawal jitters or becoming physically ill, said Rogers, also a faculty member at niversity of Colorado, Boulder’s Institute of Behavioral Science (IBS).
A surprising finding was that of those who identified themselves as light drinkers (consuming less than one drink a day), 48 percent reported having some problem with alcohol in the 12 months prior to the survey.
“This was a little surprising to us,” said Rogers, who directs the CU Population Program within IBS. “Overall, light drinking has been shown to be slightly beneficial from a health standpoint, and we didn’t think those people would run into too many overall problems.”
The research data allowed the CU-Boulder team to investigate the mortality linked to 41 separate drinking problems, including drinking more than intended, unsuccessfully trying to cut back, driving a car after drinking too much, losing ties with friends and family, missing work with hangovers, drinking more to get the same effect, depression, and arrests.
There was significant variation in drinking problems, said Rogers, noting that among participants, 23 percent started drinking without intending to, 20 percent drank longer than expected and 25 percent experienced a strong urge to drink.
For those who experienced a strong urge to drink over the past year, 19 percent were light drinkers, 40 percent were moderate drinkers and 57 percent were heavy drinkers.
The study also found the following:
- current drinkers who found it difficult to stop once they started had a 15 percent higher risk of death over the follow-up period;
- those who acknowledged going on a drinking bender during the past 12 months had a 54 percent higher mortality rate;
- and those who blacked out during the previous 12 months prior to the assessment had a 22 percent higher mortality rate over the 18-year study period.
“What this study really shows is that researchers and policymakers need to look at the nuanced complexities tied to alcohol consumption,” said Rogers.
“Alcohol consumption does not have a clear dose-response relationship like smoking, for instance. We have seen that alcohol does have a benefit at low levels in some cases, but it also can create social problems for some individuals who are only light to moderate drinkers.”