Friday, July 26, 2013

Mortality Rates and Big Bird

I briefly mentioned some contradictory alcohol news the other day. I keep wanting to blog it ... but I have this resistance.

When I first read the headline in Medical News Today, I thought "Wow! Another great reason to drink!" Because the slug read: How Non-Drinkers Can Be At Higher Death Risk.

The article went on to state that a University of Colorado study was conducted using data from the 1988 National Health Interview Survey. 41,000 people in the U.S. were asked about their drinking habits, then a follow-up survey was done in 2006. The researchers wanted to determine how drinking patterns affected mortality rates: in other words, who of the participants had kicked the bucket in the intervening 18 years.

They found that people who abstained from alcohol had a "relatively higher risk of dying." The numbers ranged from 17% for people who didn't drink because they never liked the taste, to a whopping 38% for former drinkers who had quit.

Hey, all good, Ms. Functional's thinking. Yay! But then I kept reading ... because the news for heavier drinkers was even worse than abstainers - even though that didn't make for quite so catchy a headline.

1-2 drinks a day seemed to be the safest group with only a 9% higher mortality rate. But for 3-4 drinks a day it went up to 49%. More than that and there was a 58% higher risk of mortality. Meaning more than half of those studied who were heavy drinkers ... were dead 18 years later.


Anyway, I've been studiously doing the math on my own drinking habits. I'm really lucky that I don't drink every day and that I take those two months off a year because if I didn't ... well ... suffice it to say, you could very well be sending flowers before 18 years was up. And not because you liked me.

Now over and above my rather impressive layperson research skills ... thank you, you're too kind ... my scientific credentials come from the summer job I had as a chemistry demonstrationist at the science center in my hometown. (I've mentioned it once or twice. Hilarious summer! I worked with a couple of blooming mad geniuses and we ended up in the emergency ward for everything from accidents with homemade fireworks to exploding balloons. We made it out alive, thankfully. Though we were all politely let go before the end of the summer in favor of some safer, more boring nerds. That's not something you put on your resume, btw. ;) ) Anyway, what I'm saying is ... I'm not a scientific expert.

However, I've done enough research into alcoholism over the years to know that these higher rates among heavy drinkers might not just be due to alcohol consumption - but other unhealthy habits that heavy drinkers tend to develop.

For instance, generally alcoholics have poorer diets. Here's more information from a study conducted in 2011 and other research released by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

This information - and tons more on the web - seems to indicate that heavy drinking goes hand in hand with unhealthy diets. Which over the course of almost 20 years could definitely lead to a higher mortality rate among the participants in the Colorado study. Because according to the World Health Organization (and your mother/doctor/trainer/know-it-all-fitness-freak-at-your-old-gym) diets high in saturated and trans fats, sodium, sugars and low in fruits, vegetables and fiber can lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers, etc.  (Here's the full article from WHO about the implications of unhealthy diet.)

Also interesting to note is that alcoholics and heavy drinkers tend to be smokers, as well. A study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research found that between 80-95% of alcoholics smoke cigarettes and of these people, 70% were heavy smokers.

We've all seen this phenomenon in the groups of people huddled outside church basements blowing smokes before an A.A. meeting. It's almost a cliche. This is also something A.A. critics hurl at them (even privately): "Oh sure, maybe you quit drinking - but you're going to die of lung cancer!" Caroline Knapp, the author of Drinking: A Love Story, an A.A. member, smoker - and the woman who started this journey for me ten years ago - died of lung cancer at only 42.

Having quit smoking myself more than 20 years ago, I'm honestly not trying to be self-righteous. Especially because recovering alcoholics may be set up to enjoy nicotine more. (Reasons vary from genetic disposition, to the balancing of stimulating and depressing effects of alcohol and cigarettes, to the nature of addictive personalities.) Whatever the case, it's harder for alcoholics and reformed drinkers to kick nicotine - simply because they enjoy it more. So naturally, people in this group will tend to be smokers.

What I'm trying to get at is a clarification of the findings of that Colorado study. Because the fact that heavy drinkers had a higher mortality rate could also be because they probably also smoked, had unhealthy diets and didn't exercise. The findings didn't provide causes of death (i.e. liver vs. lung cancer) only the actual mortality rates.

Anyway, I'm certainly not trying to advocate heavy drinking! Or trying to refute the scary findings of this study. But I am advocating a healthier lifestyle overall. This is important for everyone - but it's absolutely vital if you drink. Especially because an even more recent study conducted by the University of Colorado (hmmm ... connection?) has found that regular exercise can actually improve the damage done to the brain by alcohol abuse.

So remember, if you're going to continue to enjoy your martini lunches, white wine girls nights, lots of beers with the boys ... then eat your veggies, get enough sleep and do your pushups!

Enough said.

Man. I wish I had something fun and optimistic to add right now. It's Friday! The weekend's starting! All this freaking talk of lung cancer, alcoholism, mortality rates. It's depressing! I can't just leave it here. I can't.

So the cheeriest thing I can think of attaching is ... the opening theme to Sesame Street. Insane, I know! The reason it even occurs to me is that I was going to post it earlier - when I stopped labeling my drinking days and non-drinking days. Simply because I thought: "Today is a drinking day!" was a bit, well, Street-y. "Today is brought to you by the letter D - for drinking!"

But when I watched it that time (couple times actually), it was so damn fun and cheerful that I haven't been able to forget it. Kids. Slides. Sunshine. Big Bird. Wow. Mind you, I don't have little ones running around - so I don't already hear it twice a day (apologies to those of you who do!). But it really can lighten things up.

The first version is from the early 2000's. It's short and super upbeat. The second one is the original from the 60s and 70s. It's longer with kind of murky production values, but it's there if you want a stroll down Memory Lane. Or Street, as the case may be.  Like I said, insane!

Have a great weekend! And get some exercise!

The new! 

The old!