Is alcohol consumption more helpful than harmful?

It depends on your age

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People drink to socialize, celebrate, and relax. Alcohol often has a strong effect on people – and throughout history, we’ve struggled to understand and manage alcohol’s power. Why does alcohol cause us to act and feel differently?

Though, various studies have underestimated the health effects of alcohol consumption. According to a new study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, those studies of health effects of alcohol consumption may underestimate the risks of imbibing, particularly for younger people.

According to the study, previous cohort studies typically used to study health benefits and risks–sometimes show benefits from moderate alcohol consumption, and tend to enroll people age 50 and older. Studying individuals at this age range disposes of each one of the individuals who has kicked the bucket before age 50 in light of alcohol consumption.

Authors noted, “Deceased persons cannot be enrolled in cohort studies. Those who have established drinkers at age 50 are ‘survivors’ of their alcohol consumption who [initially] might have been healthier or have had safer drinking patterns” compared with others.”

The study suggests that almost 40% of overall deaths from alcohol occur before age 50. It means, the studies underestimate alcohol-related risk compared with what would be observed across the full age spectrum. Also, the study shows that most study members are not delegate of all people who start to drink alcohol.

For the study, scientists used the Alcohol-Related Disease Impact software application from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data used were derived from government statistics on cause of death and health benefits from 2006 to 2010 in the United States.

They found that age was a large factor in deaths prevented by alcohol consumption. Some 35.8% of the total deaths caused by alcohol occurred in people ages 20 to 49. However, of the deaths determined to have been prevented by alcohol consumption, only 4.5% occurred in this younger age group.

Although those ages 65 and older saw a similar 35.0% of the mortality caused by drinking, 80% of the deaths that were prevented by alcohol consumption occurred in this group.

Scientists observed a similar pattern while analyzing the years of potential life lost as a result of drinking. Of the overall years of life lost, 58.4% occurred in those ages 20 to 49. But this younger group saw only 14.5% of the years of life saved from drinking. People 65 and older accounted for 15% of the overall years of life lost from alcohol consumption. However, more than 50% of the years of life saved occurred within this older group.

In other words, scientists show that younger people are more likely to die from alcohol consumption than they are to die from a lack of drinking, whereas older people are the ones most likely to see the health benefits of moderate drinking often mentioned in the news.

Authors noted, “This study adds to the literature questioning protective effects for alcohol on all-cause mortality. Nonetheless, they write that most who choose to drink can do so with relatively low risk.”

Naimi, T. S., Stadtmueller, L. A., Chikritzhs, T., Stockwell, T., Zhao, J., Britton, A., Saitz, R., & Sherk, A. (2019). Alcohol, age, and mortality: Estimating selection bias due to premature death. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 80, 63-98. doi:10.15288/jsad.2019.80.63