If people moderated their alcohol intake and avoided excessive drinking, it would prevent 10 percent of the deaths that occur in this country every year in people between the ages of 20-64. Tallying up all the potential years of life lost annually due to alcohol-related deaths, the total reaches 2.5 million years.
Those are the results of a new study released today by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The authors collected data related to 54 different causes of death that could be attributed to alcohol, both chronic and acute. For some of these conditions, like motor vehicle collisions due to intoxication, or cirrhosis of the liver, mortality could be attributed entirely to the effect of alcohol. For other conditions, such as high blood pressure or breast cancer, the deaths related to alcohol were calculated using risk estimates for developing the different diseases based on varying levels of intake.
The study, published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, defined excessive alcohol intake as either binge drinking—five or more drinks on a single occasion for men, four or more for women—or heavy weekly consumption—15 or more weekly drinks for men, eight for women. Since much of the data collected relied on self-reporting by individuals, which can low-ball the amount actually consumed when compared to alcohol sales in various areas, it may be that alcohol plays an even greater role in preventable death than even this new study shows.
All told, alcohol-related deaths comprise about 10 percent of the total deaths in the United States per year among working-age people. Those who die prematurely are overwhelmingly—71 percent—male, and over half die as the direct result of binge drinking. Though still lagging behind tobacco use, poor nutrition, and sedentary lifestyle on the list of preventable causes of death in our country, excessive drinking leads to the cumulative loss of millions of years of potential human life.
These numbers are stark and sobering—in many cases, one hopes literally so. It’s one thing to have an intellectual understanding of the health risks associated with imbibing too much. But seeing the thousands of deaths per year of liver disease, cancer, and trauma that could have been prevented makes clear how serious the problem of alcohol abuse is from a public health perspective, to say nothing of the individual tragedies each death represents.
As a pediatrician, my eye searched for data that relates to the lives of children. I made grim note of the hundreds of deaths each year that are due to alcohol-related child abuse, and that the top three causes of alcohol-related deaths for those under 21 are motor vehicle accidents, homicide, and suicide—with the first way out in front at 36 percent. Even though the focus of the study is on preventable deaths among people defined as working age, it’s a harrowing reminder that excessive alcohol consumption isn’t a problem limited to that age group.
Unlike tobacco use, the number one cause of preventable death and a terrible habit with nothing to recommend it, moderate alcohol consumption is safe and may actually confer some benefits. Drinking is, for many people, an enjoyable part of social gatherings and a complement to meals. For that small number of my patients who are of legal drinking age, I tell them to keep consumption limited, but I don’t advise total abstinence. (I have many patients who disclose that they drink despite not having turned 21, in which case I do advise abstinence.) Drinking is not, in and of itself, something that must be strictly avoided.
But for those people who can’t keep the amount they consume within healthy limits, the costs can be high. Tens of thousands of deaths on average are attributable to alcohol abuse according to this study, all of which could have been prevented. Though is it unrealistic to expect that any new data will, all by themselves, convince problem drinkers to stop, medical providers and loved ones alike now have new information to point to when urging those who need it to seek help.