01/31/2014 08:59 am ET

Is Vodka Why Russian Men Die So Young?

glass of clear alcohol in hand
glass of clear alcohol in hand

Too much vodka could be to blame for Russia's notoriously high death rate for young men, according to a new study.

The new findings, published in the journal The Lancet show an association between the amount of vodka consumed by men in Russia, and risk of dying over a decade. The researchers found men who drank less than a bottle of vodka a week had a lower risk of early death than men who drank three or more bottles of vodka each week.

Right now, one in four Russian men will die before reaching age 55, researchers reported. For comparison, just 7 percent of men in the UK die before that age. In addition, researchers noted that death rates for young and middle aged people in Russia seem to be associated with alcohol consumption, and that alcohol consumption seems to be tied with changing government alcohol restrictions throughout the years.

For the study, researchers analyzed health data from about 151,000 people from three Russian cities, where the mortality rates were similar to that of Russia as a whole. The people were interviewed about their alcohol habits, specifically vodka, and were followed up with a decade later.

They were divided up into three groups: low drinkers (including never-drinkers, people who stopped drinking because of illness, and men who drink less than a bottle of vodka a week/women who drink less than 0.25 of a bottle of vodka a week), middle drinkers (men who drink less than three bottles a week/women who drink 0.25 to less than one bottle of vodka a week) and heavy drinkers (men who drink three or more bottles of vodka a week/women who drink one or more bottle a week). Most of the heavy drinkers were also smokers.

Researchers found that among the smokers between ages 35 and 54, the risk of dying over a 20-year period was 35 percent higher for those who drank three or more bottles (half-liter) a week of vodka.

"Because some who said they were light drinkers later became heavy drinkers, and vice-versa, the differences in mortality that we observed must substantially under-estimate the real hazards of persistent heavy drinking," study researcher Dr. Paul Brennan, of the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer, said in a statement.

Alcohol poisoning, violence, suicide, accidents and certain medical conditions/diseases (including cancer, liver disease, pneumonia and pancreatitis) seemed to be the culprits of the increased risk of death among the heavy drinkers.

Heavy drinking was uncommon among non-smokers, but researchers noted that the higher death risk was similar for this group of people, too.

The study was conducted by a team of researchers from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the Russian Cancer Research Centre, Oxford University and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

In a related comment, Jurgen Rehm, of the University of Toronto, noted that "it is the combination of high overall volume with the specific pattern of episodic binges that is necessary to explain the high level and fluctuating trends of total and alcoholᅡᆳ attributed mortality in Russia."

He added: "The fact that alcohol consumption has such a huge effect on mortality opens a door for interventions to decrease the high mortality rate in Russia, especially for men -- by implementing alcohol policy that reduces the availability of alcohol, such as via price increases. Since the average life expectancy from birth for men in Russia is still only 64 years, ranking among the lowest 50 countries in the world, more effective alcohol and tobacco policy measures are urgently needed."