MILITARY CULTURE
Michael Richman

VA wants to know if your alcohol habits are healthy

A new study finds that consuming alcoholic beverages daily — even at low levels that meet U.S. guidelines for safe drinking — appears to be "detrimental" to health.

The researchers found that downing one to two drinks at least four days per week was linked to a 20 percent increase in the risk of premature death, compared with drinking three times a week or less. The finding was consistent across the group of more than 400,000 people studied. They ranged in age from 18 to 85, and many were veterans.


Dr. Sarah Hartz, a psychiatrist at the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System, led the study. It appeared in November 2018 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. She's not too surprised by the findings, noting that two large international studies published this year reached similar conclusions.

"There has been mounting evidence that finds light drinking isn't good for your health," says Hartz, who is also an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Study considered a range of demographic factors

(Photo by Alan Levine)

The study results don't necessarily prove cause and effect. People who tend to drink more may indeed end up having shorter lives — but not necessarily because of more alcohol consumption. It could be, for example, that those people have harder lives all around, with more stress, which takes a toll on health and longevity. But the researchers did control for a range of demographic factors and health diagnoses to try to tease out the direct effects of alcohol.

Another limitation of the study is that it relied on in-person self-reports of alcohol use. Researchers believe this method may lead to under-reporting, compared with anonymous surveys.

But relative to some past studies that found health benefits from light-to-moderate drinking, the new study looked at a much larger population. This allowed Hartz's team to better distinguish between groups of drinkers, in terms of quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption.

"We're seeing things that we didn't before because we have access to such large data sets," she says. "In the past, we couldn't distinguish between these drinking amounts. The larger the data set, the more statistical power you have and the easier it is to make conclusions."

94,000 VA outpatient records part of study

(Photo by Heather Hammond)

The researchers reviewed two data sets of self-reported alcohol use and mortality follow-up. One set included more than 340,000 people from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). The other contained nearly 94,000 VA outpatient medical records. Health and survival were tracked between seven and 10 years.

According to the findings, people who drank four or more times a week, even when limiting it to only a drink or two, had about a 20 percent greater risk of dying during the study period.

As part of the study, Hartz and her team specifically evaluated deaths due to heart disease and cancer. For heart disease, they found a benefit to drinking, specifically that one to two drinks per day about four days a week seemed to protect against death from heart disease. But drinking every day eliminated those benefits. In terms of death from cancer, any drinking was "detrimental," she says.

Current CDC guidelines call for alcohol to be used "in moderation — up to two drinks a day for men and up to one drink a day for women." The guidelines don't recommend that people who do not drink should start doing so for any reason.

This article originally appeared on the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.