Drinking Alcohol May Be More Harmful Than Thought for Young Adults

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Alcohol consumption may be more harmful than thought, particularly for young and middle-age adults, a new study suggests.

Although drinking alcohol in moderation is often thought to be good for you, the authors point out that many studies on the benefits of alcohol consumption involve people ages 50 and older. This paints a skewed picture of the benefits of alcohol, because it eliminates people who have died from alcohol consumption at younger ages.

That's worrisome, because more than one-third of deaths from alcohol consumption occur among people ages 20 to 49, according to the study, published yesterday (Feb. 28) in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Indeed, "deceased persons cannot be enrolled in" medical studies, the study authors wrote. What's more, "those who are 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, according to the study, led by Dr. Timothy Naimi, of Boston Medical Center's Clinical Addiction Research and Education Unit. [7 Ways Alcohol Affects Your Health]

The findings add to a growing body of research questioning the protective effects of alcohol consumption. Last year, a global study concluded that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.

In the new study, the researchers analyzed information from a database that contains estimates of alcohol-related deaths and potential years of life lost due to alcohol consumption in the United States. The database includes 54 medical conditions that are related, either directly or indirectly, to alcohol consumption, such as alcoholic liver disease and alcohol-related car crashes. Though alcohol consumption is tied to an increased risk of death from most of these conditions, it's linked with a reduced risk of some others, mainly types of cardiovascular disease.

The study researchers found that from 2006 to 2010, about 36 percent of deaths related to alcohol consumption occurred in people ages 20 to 49, and 35 percent occurred among those ages 65 and older.

In addition, about 60 percent of years of life lost due to alcohol consumption occurred in people ages 20 to 49, compared with just 15 percent in people ages 65 and older.

To look at alcohol's benefits, the researchers focused on deaths that were estimated to be "prevented" by alcohol consumption, as well as years of life "saved" by alcohol. Only 4.5 percent of estimated deaths said to be prevented by alcohol consumption occurred among those ages 20 to 49, compared with 80 percent among those ages 65 and older.

More than 50 percent of the estimated years of life said to be saved occurred among those aged 65 and older, compared with just 14.5 percent of those ages 20 to 49.

Overall, the findings suggest that previous studies that enrolled older adults underestimated alcohol-related risks compared with what would be seen for drinkers of all ages, the researchers said.

Still, the researchers note that "there are many reasons why people choose to drink or not to drink alcohol apart from its health effects" and that most people who choose to drink moderately can do so with relatively low risk.

Originally published on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.