Drinking Problems Requiring Intervention Linked to Higher Death Rates

New evidence from a team of American researchers points to a strong connection between certain indications of drinking problems and increased chances of dying. In the U.S., tens of thousands of people die every year as a direct or indirect consequence of consuming alcohol. In a study published in March 2015 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder used data from a large-scale project called the National Health Interview Survey-Linked Mortality Files (NHIS-LMF) to help determine which specific indicators of drinking problems are associated with increased odds of dying. These researchers identified a number of independent and secondary indicators that make drinking-related deaths more likely to occur.

Drinking Problems

As a rule, people who consume alcohol in excessive amounts have the highest chances of developing drinking problems. However, even people who qualify as moderate drinkers or light drinkers under commonly accepted public health guidelines can experience negative drinking outcomes. Specific examples of problematic drinking include repeatedly consuming alcohol in dangerous or inappropriate situations, lacking the ability to consistently control the amount of alcohol you consume, getting arrested for your behavior while under the influence of alcohol, devoting large amounts of time or other resources to drinking or recovery from drinking episodes, maintaining a pattern of alcohol intake that harms your family or friends, using drinking to avoid unwanted problems or situations and continuing to consume alcohol (particularly in excessive amounts) after experiencing clearly damaging consequences from previous drinking episodes. Several indicators of drinking problems are also potentially diagnosable symptoms of alcohol use disorder, a condition that includes both alcohol dependence (i.e., alcoholism) and non-dependent alcohol abuse. A person with alcohol use disorder must have at least two out of 11 total symptoms to qualify for a diagnosis. Some affected individuals only have symptoms of alcohol dependence (including such things as recurring alcohol cravings and a rising tolerance to alcohol’s effects), while others only have symptoms of alcohol abuse. However, many people with alcohol use disorder have symptoms that point to the presence of both alcohol dependence and non-dependent alcohol abuse.

The National Health Interview Survey

The National Health Interview Survey is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) project designed to track health-related trends throughout the U.S. The survey’s linked mortality files are records designed to track the health-related factors that increase any given person’s chances of dying. In order to achieve this goal, the CDC indexes its survey findings against a database called the National Death Index, which catalogs all deaths reported at the state level by coroners and medical examiners.

Problem Indicators and Mortality Rates

In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the University of Colorado researchers identified at a total of 41 possible drinking problems found in light drinkers, moderate drinkers and/or heavy drinkers. Next, they used data from the NHIS-LMF to determine which of these problems are linked to heightened chances of dying from an alcohol-related cause. After completing their work, the researchers confirmed that all alcohol consumers, including light drinkers, can experience notable problems associated with their drinking patterns. Predictably, risks for encountering such problems are higher in moderate drinkers and heavy drinkers. Importantly, drinking problems in moderate and heavy drinkers are accompanied by an overall increase in the chances of dying from an alcohol-related cause. The researchers concluded that the single biggest indicator of alcohol-related mortality is having a drinking problem severe enough to require intervention from a loved one, friend or physician. People who have a drinking problem severe enough to result in loss of a job also experience a roughly 36 percent increase in their chances of dying from an alcohol-related cause. Crucially, the researchers found that social indicators of drinking problems have at least as much impact on alcohol-related mortality as physical indicators. This fact holds true regardless of the specific amount of alcohol consumed by the individual. It also holds true regardless of the influence of a number of other relevant factors, including socioeconomic status, geographical location, health status and racial/ethnic background. Based on their findings, the study’s authors recommend that all future researchers interested in alcohol-related mortality include social and physical indicators of drinking problems within the scope of their projects.

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