The survey of more than 3,000 people, reported in Addiction, showed that people with a family member, friend or colleague who drank heavily generally gave lower ratings to their own health and well-being.
Compared to people who didn’t have heavy drinkers in their lives, they also did less well on on standard measures of general health — such as chronic pain, anxiety and depression symptoms — and had lower overall satisfaction with life.
The average affect was similar to what’s been seen in studies of people caring for somebody with a disability, said lead researcher Sally Casswell, at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand.
“There is a relationship between exposure to heavy drinkers and reduced personal well-being and poorer health status in this cross-sectional general population sample,” she wrote.
“Exposure to heavy drinkers may have negative impacts for others.”
Casswell acknowledged, however, that the findings do not prove that being around a heavy drinker was the root of study participants’ problems, noting that the study is just “a snapshot at one point in time.”
“So…some other explanation is possible,” she told Reuters Health by e-mail, adding that people with poorer well-being may be more likely to attract heavy drinkers into their lives.
In addition, people who know heavy drinkers might drink heavily themselves, tend to be less educated or have lower incomes. But none of these explained the findings.
The new study included 3,038 12- to 80-year-olds who were asked whether they had any heavy drinkers in their life. “Heavy drinking” was not defined but was left to participants to define.
Overall, about one in three said they had at least one heavy drinker in their life in the past year. Most often, it was a friend, family member or partner, but in some cases it was someone at work.
Not surprisingly, people who actually lived with a heavy drinker had the lowest scores on measures of general health and personal well-being.
But even people with relatively minor exposure to heavy drinkers, such as those with a co-worker or a more-distant relative who drank, generally reported lower satisfaction than people who had no heavy drinkers in their life.
In contrast to research on families with a member in treatment for alcohol problems, she said, “what the current study does is get more of a sense of the size of the problem across an entire population.”
She added that this should be considered in debates about polices aimed at heavy drinking, such as raising the price of alcohol or stricter enforcement of drunk driving laws and minimum drinking age.