Alternate headline: “Blogger going to live forever.”

[A] new paper in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research suggests that — for reasons that aren’t entirely clear — abstaining from alcohol does actually tend to increase one’s risk of dying even when you exclude former drinkers. The most shocking part? Abstainers’ mortality rates are higher than those of heavy drinkers…

The sample of those who were studied included individuals between ages 55 and 65 who had had any kind of outpatient care in the previous three years. The 1,824 participants were followed for 20 years. One drawback of the sample: a disproportionate number, 63%, were men. Just over 69% of the never-drinkers died during the 20 years, 60% of the heavy drinkers died and only 41% of moderate drinkers died.

These are remarkable statistics. Even though heavy drinking is associated with higher risk for cirrhosis and several types of cancer (particularly cancers in the mouth and esophagus), heavy drinkers are less likely to die than people who have never drunk. One important reason is that alcohol lubricates so many social interactions, and social interactions are vital for maintaining mental and physical health. As I pointed out last year, nondrinkers show greater signs of depression than those who allow themselves to join the party,

New alternate headline: “Blogger not going to live forever after all.” Seriously, though, does the social lubrication theory make sense? My guess is that there are as many heavy drinkers, if not more, among people who are socially isolated as there are teetotalers. Plus, according to Time, the researchers controlled for all sorts of variables — including “number of close friends” and “quality of social support” — and still found higher mortality among non-drinkers. If anything, I’d expect that some significant percentage of teetotalers eschew booze because they’re unusually health-conscious, which should boost the overall group’s lifespan beyond that of a bunch of, um, alcoholics.

I’m honestly interested in an explanation for this. Maybe it has something to do with heavy drinkers needing to depend more on friends and family day to day? Having de facto caretakers keeping an eye on them may provide an early warning system for emerging health problems that teetotalers don’t enjoy. Or does booze itself, even in massive quantities, provide some sort of as-yet-undetermined physical health benefit? Any theories?