Alcohol is a drug, the abuse of which is the third leading cause of preventable death and disability in the United States. Most clinicians intuitively appreciate that 80% of drinkers consume only 20% of all the alcohol consumed in the United States. In other words, most problem drinkers consume most of the alcohol and most drinkers are not problem drinkers. Perhaps as a result, clinicians may recommend the consumption of alcohol in moderation for its putative health promoting effects (e.g., reduction in cardiovascular events and increases in HDL), hoping that patients can benefit without being put at risk.
I am personally guilty of such allowances among patients who already consume modestly. With all the potential negative consequences of alcohol use, it might not have taken much for me to change my clinical advice-giving.
Knott and colleagues conducted a population based study from the Health Survey for England encompassing the years 1998-2008 linked to national mortality data. The investigators observed that compared with never drinkers, protective effects of alcohol were limited to younger men (aged 50-64 years) and older women (≥ 65 years).
What this study adds to the literature is a cleaner comparison between alcohol consumers and never drinkers and adjustments for additional confounders. Many of the previous studies showing alcohol’s beneficial effects have included former drinkers in the nondrinker comparison group; however, former drinkers have a higher mortality risk than do never drinkers because they tend to be unhealthier than never drinkers. Compared to a healthier population of never drinkers, alcohol’s effects attenuate. The use of additional adjustment variables not used in previous studies also attenuated the effect of alcohol.
As patients age, their ability to metabolize and eliminate alcohol changes. Such alterations can lead to increased adverse health consequences and accidents. If the benefit of alcohol is not as great as we previously thought, maybe the time has come to change our advice on alcohol.
Dr. Ebbert is professor of medicine, a general internist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a diplomate of the American Board of Addiction Medicine. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Mayo Clinic. The opinions expressed in this article should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition nor should they be used as a substitute for medical advice from a qualified, board-certified practicing clinician.