In a sobering reminder that stereotypes are sometimes no joke, a new British study confirms that excessive consumption of vodka is a major factor of early death among Russian men, illuminating an entirely preventable mortality factor in a nation where a fourth of the male population dies before their 55th birthday.

Dr. Sir Richard Peto, a professor at the University of Oxford and senior author of a new study, said in a press release that, although the Russian male mortality has hardly remained stable over the years, the national liquor of choice appears to have played a pretty serious part in determining the death toll each year. "Russian death rates have fluctuated wildly over the past 30 years as alcohol restrictions and social stability varied under Presidents Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin, and the main thing driving these wild fluctuations in death was vodka,” Peto explained. “This has been shown in retrospective studies, and now we've confirmed it in a big, reliable prospective study."

To investigate the link between early death and vodka consumption, the researchers surveyed 151,000 Russian men about their drinking habits. The participants were then followed for up to a decade. At the end of the study, the team investigated causes of death and vodka intake among the 8,000 participants that had died.

The findings, which are published in The Lancet, show that heavy drinkers ages 35 to 54 who consumed more than three half-liter bottles of vodka a week had a 35 percent chance of dying within the next 20 years. For peers who consumed less than one bottle a week, the 20-year mortality risk was cut in half. However, as personal fluctuations in vodka intake were not taken into account, Peto believes that the real death toll may be much higher. "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,” he explained, adding that most of the participants who reported heavy drinking were also smokers.

Men and Alcohol Death

The new study dovetails with a review released earlier this year by the World Health Organization, in which researchers show that men account for nearly all of the 80,000 alcohol-related deaths that occur in North and Latin America each year. In El Salvador, for example, men are 27.8 times more likely to die from drinking compared to women. What’s more, estimates from health officials suggest that alcohol is not the only preventable cause of death that a disproportionate amount of men fall victim to: Males are also three times more likely to drown than their female peers.

“Men had elevated risks for exposure, risk taking, and alcohol use,” researchers from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention said of their findings. “It was concluded that several factors contribute to their relatively high drowning rates, including a possible interaction between overestimation of abilities and heavy alcohol use.”

When Vodka Is Not the Answer

The deaths recorded by the new study were mainly attributed to alcohol poisoning, accidents, violence, and suicide. Participants also died from a variety of diseases, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, pancreatitis, liver disease, and cancer. Peto hopes that, given the nation’s low life expectancy, the new finding will spur the launch of better prevention strategies against the liquid threat.

"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,” he concluded.

Source: Zaridze D, Lewington S, Boroda A, Peto R. Alcohol and mortality in Russia: prospective observational study of 151,000 adults. The Lancet. 2014