Quantity and frequency of drinking influence mortality risk

March 4, 2008

How much and how often people drink – not just the average amount of alcohol they consume over time – independently influence the risk of death from several causes, according to a new study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"Taken together, our results reinforce the importance of drinking in moderation. In drinkers who are not alcohol dependent, the majority of U.S. drinkers, alcohol quantity and frequency might be thought of as modifiable risk factors for mortality,” the researchers conclude.

“These findings underscore the importance of looking at drinking patterns when investigating alcohol-related health outcomes,” says Ting-Kai Li, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the NIH.

Rosalind A. Breslow, Ph.D., M.P.H., an epidemiologist in NIAAA’s Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research, and Barry I. Graubard, Ph.D., a statistician in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute, examined data from a nationwide health survey conducted in 1988. Almost half of the nearly 44,000 people who participated in the survey identified themselves as current drinkers who had at least 12 drinks of alcohol during the previous year. By the end of 2002, more than 2,500 of these individuals had died. Drs. Breslow and Graubard compared their causes of death with the alcohol consumption patterns they reported in the survey. A report of their findings appears in the March, 2008 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The researchers found that, in men, alcohol frequency and quantity had opposite effects on cardiovascular mortality. The greater the amount of alcohol that men consumed on drinking days, the greater was their risk for death from cardiovascular disease. For example, men who had five or more drinks on drinking days had a 30 percent greater risk for cardiovascular mortality than men who had just one drink per drinking day. Alcohol quantity was also associated with increased mortality from cancer among men. On the other hand, frequency of drinking was associated with decreased risk for death from cardiovascular disease among men -- those who reported drinking 120 to 365 days per year had about 20 percent lower cardiovascular mortality than men who drank just one to 36 days per year. The current study was not designed to determine why drinking frequency might have a protective effect. Among women, frequent drinking was associated with a significantly increased risk of cancer, while increased quantity was associated with risk for mortality from all causes.

Previous studies have linked moderate drinking with reduced risk for death from cardiovascular disease, while heavier drinking has been linked with increased mortality. Such studies have typically measured individuals’ average alcohol intake. A drawback of that approach, says Dr. Breslow, is that averaging obscures potential differences between people who sometimes drink heavily and those who consistently drink small amounts of alcohol.

“Average intake makes no distinction between the individual who has seven drinks one day each week, for example, and someone who has just one drink, every day,” explains Dr. Breslow. “Our study is the first to look at how both quantity and frequency components of alcohol consumption independently influence cause-specific mortality within a single cohort representing the US population.”

The researchers note that the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans (www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/document/html/chapter9.htm>) advise men to drink no more than two drinks per day and women to drink no more than one drink per day. Because women's bodies generally have less water than men's bodies, a given amount of alcohol is less diluted in a woman's body than in a man's. Consequently, when a woman drinks, the alcohol in her bloodstream typically reaches a higher level than a man's even if both are drinking the same amount.

Source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Explore further: Alcohol taxes are too low, have not kept up with inflation

Related Stories

Alcohol taxes are too low, have not kept up with inflation

December 13, 2017
State alcohol excise taxes are typically only a few cents per drink and have not kept pace with inflation, according to a new study in the January issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Raising those taxes, ...

Winter months most likely to lead to tragedy for men who disappear on a night out

December 13, 2017
Men are more likely to go missing on a night out and be found dead in December than at any other time of the year, according to a sobering new report from the University of Portsmouth.

Poor sleep could lead to heavier drinking in young adults, study finds

December 8, 2017
A shortened night of sleep may increase young adults' risk of heavier drinking, according to a new Yale study that assessed reciprocal variations in sleep and drinking over time in young adults.

Drinking and the risk of cancer

December 11, 2017
It's no secret that drinking alcohol is a risk factor for cancer. The National Cancer Institute says alcohol use is associated with a higher risk of developing cancers of the head and neck, esophagus, liver, breast, colon ...

Rush to treat liver patients causing more harm than good

December 11, 2017
Doctors risk overdiagnosing the most common and fastest-growing liver condition, exposing patients to harmful tests, according to a study published today.

Out of character—how acting puts a mental strain on performers

December 7, 2017
Performers are twice as likely as the general population to experience depression, according to the 2015 Australian Actors' Wellbeing Study. Many suffer from performance anxiety and report high levels of stress arising from ...

Recommended for you

Searching for a link between achy joints and rainy weather in a flood of data, researchers come up dry

December 13, 2017
Rainy weather has long been blamed for achy joints. Unjustly so, according to new research from Harvard Medical School. The analysis, published Dec. 13 in BMJ, found no relationship between rainfall and joint or back pain.

Mistletoe and (a large) wine: Seven-fold increase in wine glass size over 300 years

December 13, 2017
Our Georgian and Victorian ancestors probably celebrated Christmas with more modest wine consumption than we do today - if the size of their wine glasses are anything to go by. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have ...

How well can digital assistants answer questions on sex?

December 13, 2017
Google laptop searches seem to be better at finding quality online sexual health advice than digital assistants on smartphones, find experts in the Christmas issue of The BMJ.

Healthy eating linked to kids' happiness

December 13, 2017
Healthy eating is associated with better self-esteem and fewer emotional and peer problems, such as having fewer friends or being picked on or bullied, in children regardless of body weight, according to a study published ...

Owning a pet does not seem to influence signs of aging

December 13, 2017
Owning a pet does not appear to slow the rate of ageing, as measured by standard indicators, suggest the authors of a study published in the Christmas issue of The BMJ.

Increased air pollution linked to bad teenage behavior

December 13, 2017
A new study linking higher levels of air pollution to increased teenage delinquency is a reminder of the importance of clean air and the need for more foliage in urban spaces, a Keck School of Medicine of USC researcher said.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.