Alcohol may be less harmful for people over 50

A recent study examines the health impact of consuming alcohol at different ages. The authors conclude that, for people over the age of 50, the health risks may be less severe.   If alcohol does have protective effects, they are not distributed evenly across all ages.

Heavy drinking is linked to a range of serious health consequences.

These include certain cancers, liver and heart disease, and damage to the nervous system, including the brain.

However, as has been exhaustively covered in the popular press, drinking in moderation might have certain health benefits.

A number of studies have concluded that drinking alcohol at a low level could have a protective effect.

One study, for instance, found that light and moderate drinking protected against all-cause mortality, as well as mortality related to cardiovascular disease.

It is no surprise that these stories have been well-received and widely read, but not all researchersagree, and the debate is ongoing. 

A recent study led by Dr. Timothy Naimi, of the Boston Medical Center in Massachusetts, adds further fuel to an already rampant blaze.

The authors take aim at the methodology used in earlier studies, and they published their findings in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs earlier this week.

A fresh approach

The researchers argue that the way that earlier studies measured alcohol’s impact on health might be flawed. Specifically, they note that the studies are generally observational and usually recruit participants over the age of 50.

The authors argue that this is problematic because it excludes anyone who might have died due to alcohol before the age of 50. As they dryly point out, “Deceased persons cannot be enrolled in cohort studies.”

Dr. Naimi first outlined his concerns about this inherent selection bias in a paper published in the journal Addiction in 2017.

“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.”

Dr. Timothy Naimi

According to the authors, almost 40 percent of deaths due to alcohol consumption occur before the age of 50.

This means that the vast majority of research into the potential risks of alcohol do not take these deaths into account and could underestimate the real dangers.

To reinvestigate, the authors dipped into data from the Alcohol-Related Disease Impact Applicationwhich is maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the CDC, this application “provides national and state estimates of alcohol-related health impacts, including deaths and years of potential life lost.”

The difference of age

The analysis showed that the level of an individual’s alcohol-related risk was heavily influenced by age.

In total, 35.8 percent of alcohol-related deaths occurred in people aged 20–49. When looking at deaths that were prevented by alcohol consumption, the scientists found only 4.5 percent in this age group.

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