For decades, we’ve all heard the warnings about how excessive drinking can turn your liver into Swiss cheese, and cause all sorts of other awful physical woes as well. But when scientists actually got around to studying the death rates of drinkers and non-drinkers, they made a startling discovery. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, abstaining from drinking actually tends to increase your risk of dying.
In a study published in 2010 in the scientific journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, University of Texas at Austin psychologist Charles Holahan found that over a 20-year period, 69 percent of abstainers died. That actually was higher than the 60 percent death rate for heavy drinkers. But the longest-lived group among the 1,824 study participants was composed of moderate drinkers, only 41 percent of whom died in that period. Holahan and his co-researchers did a model controlling for former problem drinking, existing health problems and other factors. They found that even after the adjustments, “abstainers and heavy drinkers continued to show increased mortality risks of 51 and 45 percent, respectively, compared to moderate drinkers” [sources: Holahan, Cloud].
Other studies have painted a more complicated picture.
A study published in 2013 in Population Research Policy Review, for example, found that the reasons why someone drinks or doesn’t drink may affect mortality [source: Rogers, et al].
And another study, this one out of Germany, published Nov. 2, 2021 in the journal PLOS Medicine, indicated that “the majority of the alcohol abstainers at baseline were former alcohol consumers and had risk factors that increased the likelihood of early death. Former alcohol use disorders, risky alcohol drinking, ever having smoked tobacco daily, and fair to poor health were associated with early death among alcohol abstainers.”
Even so, the consensus seems to be that light drinking is associated with the lowest health risks, while heavy drinking is still dangerous [source: Shmerling].