Protective effects of alcohol marginal and only in over 55s

May 09, 2001

Mortality in England and Wales attributable to current alcohol consumption 2001; 55: 383-88

The protective effects of alcohol are marginal, and mostly in men over 55 and women over 65, shows a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Hygiene analysed published population data on death rates and alcohol consumption for England and Wales in 1996 and 1998, respectively. The data were broken down by age and gender, and the figures used to calculate years of life lost and gained as a result of drinking alcohol.

The results showed that alcohol reduces overall death rates by around 2 per cent because it protects against coronary artery disease. But the gains were largely seen in men over the age of 55 and women over the age of 65 for whom the risk of heart disease is much higher. The protective effects of alcohol were strongest in men, with 2.8 per cent fewer deaths in men against 0.9 per cent fewer in women.

The calculations indicated that around 75 000 years of life were lost prematurely because of alcohol, and predominantly in men under the age of 44 in 1996. Road traffic accidents, suicide and alcoholic liver disease accounted for most of the deaths. In women alcohol accounted for deaths from accidental falls, breast cancer, stroke and cirrhosis of the liver.

The authors cite recent research which suggests that for alcohol consumption to be most beneficial, men should not drink until after the age of 34, while women should steer clear until they are 54. And they conclude that government estimates on the numbers of annual deaths from alcohol, published in Our Healthier Nation in 1998 are a misrepresentation of the actual figures.

Ms Annie Britton, Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, University of London.

BMJ Specialty Journals

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