While the evidence on alcohol consumption varies from study to study, it’s generally thought that people who drink in moderation live longer than people who abstain entirely. But new research casts doubt on this, finding no difference between the lifespans of moderate drinkers and those who’ve never had alcohol.
Instead, the German study suggests that previous research on abstainers’ shorter lifespans fails to take into account that many of those abstainers had recovered from alcohol use disorders, addictions and other ailments which increase mortality.
“It has long been assumed that low to moderate alcohol consumption might have positive effects on health based on the finding that alcohol abstainers seemed to die earlier than low to moderate drinkers,” says Ulrich John, a researcher at the University Medicine Greifswald, Germany, and lead author on a paper describing the research, published in PLOS.
“We found that the majority of the abstainers had alcohol or drug problems, risky alcohol consumption, daily tobacco smoking or fair to poor health in their history – ie, factors that predict early death.”
The researchers began their analysis with data from a survey of 4,028 German adults, taken in 1996 and 1997, on their alcohol consumption.
They followed this data up, 20 years later, by retrieving the death certificate information (or vital status) of each participant in 2017 and 2018.
Of the 447 participants who were alcohol abstinent, 322 had previously either had an alcohol or drug dependence, had tried to cut down or stop their drinking, were smokers, or self-rated their health as poor. These people did have a lower life expectancy than moderate drinkers.
The 125 abstainers who’d never drunk alcohol, or only in small amounts, showed no difference in mortality to the moderate drinking population.
The researchers say that this data speaks against recommendations to drink alcohol for health reasons.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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