Heavy drinkers outlive abstainers?

Interesting post about the relationship between drinking and longevity.

A recent study found that heavy drinkers outlive nondrinkers. Other bloggers suggested that drinking is a proxy for social connectivity and this explains the difference in longevity.

Maia follows up on these posts and wonders whether membership in AA for alcoholics might serve a similar function as drinking for non-alcoholics.

So, that got me to thinking: could the life-extending benefit of drinking be extended to nondrinkers, minus the alcohol? For instance, couldn’t AA’s social network offer similar health advantages to teetotalers?

The reasoning here is that abstainers are on the whole a lonelier and more depressed bunch, compared with their tippling peers (though, again, there are exceptions to every rule: many abstainers don’t drink for religious reasons and still have strong social networks through church). Lehrer notes a spate of recent research connecting loneliness and lack of friends and family to higher risk of illness and death. One major study even found that loneliness may just as bad for your health as smoking. That helps explain why the harm done by staying home alone may be greater than that from binging in bars.

It would be very interesting to see follow-up on this study. Do these findings hold in geographic regions with more abstainers? Do these findings hold for people affiliated with religious communities that discourage drinking?

She also points to one big hole in attempts to generalize the findings from this study:

Incidentally, another possibility that hasn’t been much considered in the debate over whether heavy drinking really is a boon to health is that the recent study [pdf], published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, included only people who were 55 or older. As a result, heavy drinkers who died early — in car accidents, bar fights, falls, alcohol poisonings, from liver disease or other alcohol-related incidents — would not have been captured by the research.

So, the real conclusion might be not that heavy drinking increases longevity — only that if you’re a heavy drinker and you make it to 55 without being killed by it, you’re probably a hardy survivor for other reasons, possibly social ones. Nonetheless, even this may not explain the results because other research finds that the leading killer of alcoholics is cigarette smoking, to which people typically succumb in their 50s or later.

2 thoughts on “Heavy drinkers outlive abstainers?

  1. This makes sense to me. It would be interesting to look at longevity in recovering populations compared to those who'd never drunk and those who drink moderately or heavily.

  2. It would be very interesting. I thought the same thing, though I'm not certain it would answer a lot of questions. You'd still be wrestling with questions about the role of years of alcoholic drinking vs years of recovery on lifespan.

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