Excessive alcohol use increases risk of death among underweight drinkers

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Excessive drinking comes with its own set of problems, but researchers from Penn State have found an even greater risk among drinkers who are underweight — not overweight. Their new study found that people who are underweight and drink too much have a higher chance of dying from heart disease, cancer, and other health conditions.

Excessive alcohol use is the third most common cause of preventable death in the United States. Experts estimate it causes one in 10 deaths among working-age adults.

“I hope these findings encourage people to eliminate risks that may lead to a life-or-death situation,” says Muntasir Masum, a postdoctoral scholar at the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center at Penn State, in a university release.

The study collected data from the National Health Interview Survey, which gathered information on people’s drinking habits. Researchers surveyed over 200,000 adults between the ages of 35 and 85 from 2001 through 2011. The team focused on people’s level of drinking based on their weight and how it affected their overall mortality risk.

Weight was based on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) definition of “underweight,” “normal weight,” “overweight,” and “obesity.” The CDC considers a person underweight if they have a body mass index less than 18.5 — calculated through a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of their height in meters.

What’s adding to this risk in skinnier people?

The research team expected to see an increasing risk of mortality related to obesity and alcoholism. However, the team found a stronger link between mortality and excessive drinking for people who are underweight.

As for how being underweight increases people’s mortality risk is a question still under investigation. Other factors may also affect this association, such as excessive drinking as an unhealthy coping mechanism to stress or a health condition that makes the body nutritionally deficient or susceptible to infection.

The study is published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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