Heavy Drinkers Outlive Nondrinkers

Have another drink:  It’s good for you.   Don’t take my word for it:  It’s science.

[A] new paper in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research suggests that — for reasons that aren’t entirely clear — abstaining from alcohol does actually tend to increase one’s risk of dying even when you exclude former drinkers. The most shocking part? Abstainers’ mortality rates are higher than those of heavy drinkers.

Moderate drinking, which is defined as one to three drinks per day, is associated with the lowest mortality rates in alcohol studies. Moderate alcohol use (especially when the beverage of choice is red wine) is thought to improve heart health, circulation and sociability, which can be important because people who are isolated don’t have as many family members and friends who can notice and help treat health problems.

But why would abstaining from alcohol lead to a shorter life? It’s true that those who abstain from alcohol tend to be from lower socioeconomic classes, since drinking can be expensive. And people of lower socioeconomic status have more life stressors — job and child-care worries that might not only keep them from the bottle but also cause stress-related illnesses over long periods. (They also don’t get the stress-reducing benefits of a drink or two after work.)

But even after controlling for nearly all imaginable variables — socioeconomic status, level of physical activity, number of close friends, quality of social support and so on — the researchers (a six-member team led by psychologist Charles Holahan of the University of Texas at Austin) found that over a 20-year period, mortality rates were highest for those who had never been drinkers, second-highest for heavy drinkers and lowest for moderate drinkers.

The sample of those who were studied included individuals between ages 55 and 65 who had had any kind of outpatient care in the previous three years. The 1,824 participants were followed for 20 years. One drawback of the sample: a disproportionate number, 63%, were men. Just over 69% of the never-drinkers died during the 20 years, 60% of the heavy drinkers died and only 41% of moderate drinkers died.

These are remarkable statistics. Even though heavy drinking is associated with higher risk for cirrhosis and several types of cancer (particularly cancers in the mouth and esophagus), heavy drinkers are less likely to die than people who have never drunk. One important reason is that alcohol lubricates so many social interactions, and social interactions are vital for maintaining mental and physical health.

I’ve learned over the years to be skeptical of media reports of medical studies.  But we’ve certainly seen a lot of other reports along these lines in recent years.   And this looks to be a legitimate study:  a large sample size, control for a large number of variables, and long time frame.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paging Vodkapundit……..

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    My guess  is that the situation is a bit more complex than that.  It may be heavy consumption of alcohol, abstinence from alcohol, and health are all inter-related with genetic factors.
    My mom’s maternal grandfather died in his 90s after having been a chronic alcoholic for nearly 70 years.  His son (my mom’s uncle) lived into his 90s.  He’d been a pretty heavy drinker for much of that time.  My mom lived until nearly 90, an extremely light drinker, just short of total abstinence.  I think it’s less that alcohol was responsible for the long lives than that genetic factors lead to both the long lives and the drinking.

  3. john personna says:

    Maybe non-alcohol drinkers tend also to be non-coffee (the elixir of life) drinkers.

  4. Brummagem Joe says:

    I obviously need to increase my daily martini count. There are of course many other factors at play (genetics, weight, exercise et al) but I’ve never believed the moderate and regular consumption of alchohol was particularly harmful as even moderate smoking was. For years we’ve known the consumption of red wine was basically health giving so we can now add gin and single malts to the good guys. Cheers.  

  5. john personna says:

    Futurepundit’s observation was that moderate drinking was an indication of moderation in general, a good point.

  6. Heavy drinkers live longer for the same reason that pickles last longer then fresh cucumbers.

  7. sam says:

    I was telling my wife…