Simple Answers to Complex Medical Questions

There's a new medical study of the effects of alcohol consumption that finds a surprising result:

Controlling only for age and gender, compared to moderate drinkers, abstainers had a more than 2 times increased mortality risk, heavy drinkers had 70% increased risk, and light drinkers had 23% increased risk. A model controlling for former problem drinking status, existing health problems, and key sociodemographic and social-behavioral factors, as well as for age and gender, substantially reduced the mortality effect for abstainers compared to moderate drinkers. However, even after adjusting for all covariates, abstainers and heavy drinkers continued to show increased mortality risks of 51 and 45%, respectively, compared to moderate drinkers.

My immediate reaction, as an academic, is that I can't wait for these results to make an appearance in the arguments about campus alcohol policy. That's going to be simultaneously hilarious and painful.

Both Time magazine and Slate report the news Jeopardy-style, with a headline in the form of a question ("Why do Heavy Drinkers Outlive Non-Drinkers?" and "How Does Booze Extend Your Lifespan?"). I am obviously not a medical doctor, but in the fine tradition of physicists pontificating about other fields, I do have a simple answer to this question:

How does alcohol use make you live longer? Because if you're drinking alcohol at all, you're clearly not stressing yourself out trying to follow the latest medical advice. I figure that by itself is good for a substantial reduction in the rate of heart attacks while trying to figure out which kind of cholesterol is the good one, again.

The optimal strategy, by the way (if you don't want to follow the links), appears to be 2-3 drinks per day. Which means most American college students are all set, provided they stop drinking altogether at 25.

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Well, it would be great for college students if they were aged 55 to 65.

...otherwise, they aren't exactly the target demographic.

I would take these results more as an illustration of the stupidity of our alcohol consumption laws and attitudes. We make it forbidden to anybody under 21, which gives it the appeal of the forbidden and also encourages anybody under that age who gets hold of a supply to consume to excess. I know several people who came to the US from various European countries, and they generally say that it's better to get the stupidity out of your system at an age where people can take care of you. I know that some European countries (mainly in the north and east) have significant problems with people consuming in excess, but many others (including Germany and France) do not.

An optimum of 2-3 per day still sounds high to me, but that may be because my average consumption is much lower. I still notice the buzz that a second glass of wine with a meal gives me, and having your drinks with a meal is supposed to mitigate such effects. I generally avoided alcohol in high school and college precisely because frequently the purpose of drinking was to get drunk, a game I had no desire to play.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 01 Sep 2010 #permalink

Wouldn't survival bias explain the results of this study? How many heavy drinkers actually live to the age of 55?

By ModDrinker (not verified) on 01 Sep 2010 #permalink

Survivorship bias. I was just about to suggest it & ModDrinker beat me to it. A longitudinal study might well have given a different picture.

By Margaret S. (not verified) on 01 Sep 2010 #permalink

Plus the same effect you get on weight vs mortality studies - people who are sick already lose weight and stop drinking alcohol (often because they are told to by their doctors).

This introduces an obvious bias - I don't know if they corrected for it in this study.

By Stephen N (not verified) on 01 Sep 2010 #permalink