We all know alcohol abuse can lead to negative health outcomes and are aware of the 'a glass of wine a day keeps the cardiologist away' philosophy, but new research has revealed something unexpected: Abstaining from drinking is associated with higher mortality rates than alcohol abuse.
A recent study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research followed 1,824 older adults for 20 years examining alcohol consumption and mortality. 69% of non-drinkers died during the 20-year period, 60% of heavy drinkers died and only 41% of moderate drinkers died.
While past research has revealed that non-drinkers die earlier than those who do drink, such outcomes were traditionally dismissed on the basis that many of those classified as abstainers are former alcoholics and have thus suffered from health problems. In this study, the researchers not only controlled for former problem drinking status, but for almost all conceivable confounding factors, including existing health problems, sociodemographic and social-behavioral factors associated with health risk, smoking status, physical activity, depressive symptoms, avoidance coping, quality of social support and number of close friends.
With all of these controls in place, mortality rates were still highest for abstainers, regardless of past alcoholism, followed by heavy drinkers and lowest for moderate drinkers (here: 1 to 3 glasses a day).
The reasons for this outcome are not particularly clear. An article in Time magazine outlining the findings suggests that alcohol acts as a social lubricant and those abstaining may feel isolated from social life or find it harder to form close friendships. As we know social interactions maintain mental and physical health, while depression and loneliness lead to an early demise. However, the authors controlled for a number of social factors, as well as depression, so we will simply have to wait for the next study to learn more.