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The 'harmful use' of alcohol leads to about six deaths per minute, says new WHO report

A new report from the World Health Organization outlines some sobering statistics on the global toll of alcohol consumption.

Image: Pixabay Commons
  • The report indicates that the 'harmful use' of alcohol leads to about six deaths per minute.
  • Poorer countries tend to see higher rates of alcohol-related deaths and injuries.
  • The WHO suggests deaths can be prevented through policies that restrict pricing, marketing, consumption and other factors.

Alcohol is responsible for 5 percent of all deaths worldwide, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO). The report, which used global data for 2016, includes some sobering statistics. The 'harmful use' of alcohol leads to about 3 million deaths annually — about six every minute — and the vast majority of those deaths, 2.3 million, are suffered by men. Among people ages 20 to 39, alcohol is responsible for about 13.5 percent of all deaths.

The report also indicates:

  • There is a causal relationship between harmful use of alcohol and a range of mental and behavioral disorders, other noncommunicable conditions as well as injuries.
  • The harmful use of alcohol is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions.
  • The latest causal relationships have been established between harmful drinking and incidence of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis as well as the course of HIV/AIDS.
  • Beyond health consequences, the harmful use of alcohol brings significant social and economic losses to individuals and society at large.
  • Globally, alcohol is linked to 7.7 percent of all deaths among men, but just 2.6 percent of all deaths among women.
  • Europe showed the highest levels of alcohol consumption, though Africa reported the highest levels of alcohol-related injuries and diseases.
  • Globally, an estimated 237 million men and 46 million women have alcohol-use disorders, mostly in Europe (14.8 percent and 3.5 percent) and the Americas (11.5 percent and 5.1 percent).

Governments aren't implementing effective policies

WHO alcohol-control expert, Dr. Vladimir Poznyak, told The Guardian that the health burden of alcohol was "unacceptably large."

"Unfortunately, the implementation of the most effective policy options is lagging behind the magnitude of the problems," he said. "Governments need to do more to meet the global targets and to reduce the burden of alcohol on societies; this is clear, and this action is either absent or not sufficient in most of the countries of the world."

Although the levels of harm caused by alcohol largely depend on factors both individual (age, socioeconomic status, gender) and societal (culture, alcohol laws), the report suggests that governments can curb alcohol-related deaths and injuries by:

  • regulating the marketing of alcoholic beverages (in particular to younger people)
  • regulating and restricting the availability of alcohol
  • enacting appropriate drink-driving policies
  • reducing demand through taxation and pricing mechanisms
  • raising awareness of public health problems caused by harmful use of alcohol and ensuring support for effective alcohol policies
  • providing accessible and affordable treatment for people with alcohol-use disorders, and
  • implementing screening and brief interventions programmes for hazardous and harmful drinking in health services.

"Now the task we share is to help countries put in place policies that make a real and measurable difference in people's lives," wrote Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO. "We have no time to waste; it is time to deliver on alcohol control."

The WHO report comes in the wake of a recent study, published by The Lancet, in August, that made headlines primarily for suggesting that the "safest level of drinking is none."

"Alcohol poses dire ramifications for future population health in the absence of policy action today. Our results indicate that alcohol use and its harmful effects on health could become a growing challenge as countries become more developed, and enacting or maintaining strong alcohol control policies will be vital," Emmanuela Gakidou, the report's senior author, told The Guardian.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Tuberculosis vaccine shows promise in reducing COVID deaths

A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.

Closeup of a BCG vaccination.

Credit: Kekyalyaynen.
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
  • More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
  • The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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