Drinking Is Responsible for a Shocking Proportion of U.S. Deaths

Close-up of a hand holding a glass of wine

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Plus: How much is too much?

We’ve all been partial to a glass of wine (or few) at the end of a long day, but if a study released this week is anything to go by, we’d do well to pause before uncorking tonight. 

According to the research published in JAMA Network Open, one in five deaths in U.S. adults aged between 20 and 49 is due to excessive drinking. Expanding the age group to include adults between 20 and 64 takes that number to one in eight deaths being attributable to drinking too much — and that may be an undercount. 

“I’m not surprised at the numbers,” David Jernigan, a professor of health law, policy and management at Boston University, said per CNN. “This is a conservative estimate.”

The causes of drinking-related deaths included traffic accidents, alcohol poisoning, and conditions like liver disease. The researchers concluded that premature deaths could be reduced if population-level alcohol policies, such as increasing alcohol taxes or regulating the number of places alcohol is sold, were implemented.

So, how much drinking is too much drinking?

Many people would probably be surprised to know what constitutes excessive drinking. One or two drinks per day on average for women and two to four drinks per day for men, on average, was considered “medium” drinking, according to the study, while more than two drinks per day for women and more than four for men was considered “excessive.”

According to the CDC, two drinks or less in a day for men or one drink or less in a day for women constitutes “moderate” drinking. Binge drinking — consuming four or more drinks in a session for a woman or five or more drinks in a session for a man, and heavy drinking — eight or more drinks per week for a woman or 15 or more drinks per week for a man, are both considered excessive.

Excessive use of alcohol is a leading cause of preventable death nationwide, shortening the lives of those who die by 26 years on average. 

It’s typical for people to underestimate and underreport how much they drink significantly. The researchers who worked on this latest study weren’t even able to include every death in which alcohol may have played a role, when they made their estimates. If they couldn’t verify for sure what role drinking played in someone’s death, or if a subject drank excessively in the past and then stopped, they weren’t necessarily included in the final total.