Background: Compared to abstention, moderate drinking has been linked to better health, and heavy and hazardous drinking to increased morbidity and mortality. Many studies have failed to account for heterogeneity in health and drinking history among nondrinkers, however. If former drinkers quit in response to ill health, this could increase the risk in the nondrinker category and underestimate the effects of alcohol if illnesses leading to abstention are alcohol-related. In addition, health behaviors may vary with drinking status, affecting health outcomes often attributed to drinking.
Methods: Survey data were collected from a probability sample of a large health maintenance organization's membership. Regression analyses assess the relationship between drinking status (adjusting for covariates), mental and physical health and functioning, and health behaviors.
Results: Former drinkers and lifelong abstainers had worse health and functioning than current drinkers and, comparatively, former drinkers had worse health than lifelong abstainers. Former drinkers did not differ from light-to-moderate drinkers in regard to health behaviors (except for smoking), although lifelong abstainers and heavier drinkers were less likely to use preventive care or try to improve their health behaviors.
Conclusions: Consistent with hypotheses that former drinkers may stop drinking because of poor health, former drinkers were less healthy than current drinkers and had slightly worse health than lifelong abstainers, compared to light-to-moderate drinkers. Former drinkers did not appear to be at risk because of poorer health behaviors (except smoking), but lifelong abstainers and heavier drinkers might benefit from outreach designed to increase use of preventive care and improve health behaviors.