The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Divorced, Drunk, Dead

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Stranded in painful loneliness by the low marriage rates and high divorce rates of modern life, a distressing number of men and women hit the bottle, hit it so hard, in fact, that many end up in an early grave. The grim linkage between singleness, alcohol abuse, and premature death stands out in a study by researchers at University College London, the University of Turku, and the University of Helsinki. Scrutinizing data from Statistics Finland for 18,200 alcohol-related deaths in Finland between 2000 and 2007, the researchers limn a clear relationship between alcohol-related deaths and social isolation.

The researchers report that compared to peers who are married or cohabiting (yes, this is twenty-first-century Scandinavia), single men and women are far more vulnerable to premature deaths related to the use of alcohol: the data indicate that for alcohol-related mortality, “crude death rates among individuals living alone were about 5-fold higher for men and 3-fold higher for women.”

Finns living alone became more vulnerable to lethal alcohol abuse in 2004, the researchers argue, when the price of liquor fell as a consequence of legal and economic changes. However, the data indicate that married men and women were far more resistant to life-ending alcohol abuse than were singles even before this drop in liquor prices. Looking specifically at liver disease (the most common reason for alcohol-related death), the researchers calculate an “age-adjusted risk ratio associated with living alone versus being married or cohabiting . . . [as] 3.7 before and 4.9 after the reduction in alcohol prices among men.” For Finnish women, the corresponding risk ratios were 1.7 and 2.4.

But liver disease counts as only one of the lethal consequences of alcohol abuse, and the researchers conclude that, quite aside from such disease, “Living alone was . . . associated with other mortality from alcohol-related diseases (range of risk ratios 2.3 to 8.0) as well as deaths from accidents and violence with alcohol as a contributing cause (risk ratios between 2.1 and 4.7), both before and after the price reduction.”

Though understandably disturbed by the consequences of cheaper liquor in Finland, the researchers recognize that the drop in liquor prices actually affected married Finns very little: “Among married or cohabiting people the increase in alcohol-related mortality was small or non-existent between the periods 2000–2003 and 2004–2007,” the researchers acknowledge, “whereas for those living alone, this increase was substantial, especially in men and women aged 50–69 y[ears].”

It is therefore no wonder that the researchers see in the upsurge of alcohol-related deaths a problem much bigger than that of liquor pricing. The larger problem manifesting itself through the spike in alcohol-related deaths is that “Social isolation and living alone are increasingly common in industrialised countries.” Such isolation, the researches explain, is inevitable in a world in which “fewer people live in extended families, and many delay and altogether avoid getting married and having children.”

Some public-health officials believe that they can deal with alcohol abuse by establishing more substance-abuse hotlines. But as this study clarifies, a root-and-branch solution requires a recovery of patterns that strengthen extended families and foster wedlock and child-bearing.

(Kimmo Herttua et al., “Living Alone and Alcohol-Related Mortality: A Population-Based Cohort Study from Finland,” PLoS Medicine 8.9 [September 20, 2011]: e1001094.)