New research suggests that people who are alcohol-dependent, particularly women, may be cutting their lives even shorter than smokers.
In the study, German researchers found death rates were 4.6-fold higher among alcohol-dependent women and 1.9-fold higher among alcohol-dependent men, compared with the general population.
"This paper confirms the well-known association between alcoholism and premature death," said Dr. James Garbutt, professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, who was not involved in the study. "It also supports the evidence that women are more likely to have more severe health problems from alcohol than men — 'sicker quicker.' "
The report was published online in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
For the study, lead by Ulrich John, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Social Medicine at University Medicine Greifswald, the researchers collected data on more than 4,000 men and women who were part of a German registry and followed for 14 years.
Among these people, 153 were identified as alcohol-dependent.
"First, we found that annualized death rates were 4.6-fold higher for females and 1.9-fold higher for males compared to the age- and gender-specific general population," John said in a statement.
"Second, we found that the mean age at death was 60 for females and 58 for males, both of which are about 20 years lower than the mean age at death among the general population," he added. "None of those deceased had reached the age of life expectancy."
"Third, having participated in inpatient alcohol-dependent treatment was not related with longer survival compared to not having taken part in treatment, meaning that it did not seem to have a sufficient protective effect against premature death," John said.
Drinking appears to contribute more to early death than other risk factors, such as smoking, he noted.
Smoking-related deaths are often due to cancers, which usually occur later in life than deaths from alcohol abuse, he noted. In addition, drinking can contribute to other risk factors such as smoking and obesity, John said.
"The finding that treatment was not protective is of interest, though the reasons are not clear," Garbutt said. "A caveat is that the study is small, so strong conclusions are not possible."
Bruce Goldman, director of substance abuse services at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y., said that "alcohol dependence is a chronic and sometimes fatal disease. There is evidence that the impact of alcohol can be more devastating in women than men."
People who are alcohol-dependent need to seek help, Goldman said: "Get help, or you may be literally drinking away years of your life."
The study showed an association between alcohol dependence and early death, but did not prove a cause-and-effect link.