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updated 9/21/2011 2:01:09 PM ET 2011-09-21T18:01:09

People who live alone are at increased risk of dying from alcohol-related diseases and accidents, according to a new Danish study.

Of the 18,200 alcohol-related deaths that researchers identified over a six-year period, two-thirds were among individuals who lived alone.

"A lot of work is increasingly showing us the importance of social connections in terms of promoting health outcomes," said Kimberly Van Orden, a psychiatrist at the University of Rochester Medical Center, who was not involved in the study. The new study helps us understand the health risks of social disconnection, Orden said.

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The findings suggest living alone may be a risk marker for alcohol abuse, said study researcher Kimmo Herttua from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, in Helsinki.

"Consequently, individuals living alone should be aware of risks of drinking too much and thus [be] careful with drinking," Herttua told MyHealthNewsDaily. And doctors should advise their patients who live alone about the risks of drinking, Herttua said.

Loneliness and alcoholism

Modern societies have weakened social relationships, with fewer people getting married or living in extended families than in past times, the researchers said. And over the past two decades, there has been a threefold increase in the number of Americans who say they have no close confidants.

While loneliness is associated with an increased risk of death over a given period, few studies have looked at specific causes for this increase.

Herttua and colleagues analyzed information on about 80 percent of the people who died in Finland between 2000 and 2007. Causes of alcohol-related death as listed on death certificates included liver disease, alcohol poisoning and accidents, as well as violence that involved alcohol.

Between 2000 and 2003, men who lived alone were 3.7 times more likely to die of liver disease compared to married or cohabiting men, the study showed. Between 2004 and 2007, men who lived alone were nearly five times more likely to die of liver disease compared to married or cohabiting men. Women living alone were also at increased risk for alcohol-related death, but the risk was smaller.

In 2004, tax cuts reduced the price of alcohol in Finland. In addition, laws were changed in the country that made it legal to import practically unlimited amounts of alcohol from other European Union countries.

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The study showed that when the availability of alcohol increased, the risk of alcohol-related death also rose for people living alone. However, the risk for married and cohabiting people stayed about the same.

Behind the link

One reason for the link may be that lonely people self-medicate with excessive alcohol, Herttua said. In addition, couples have each other to control their drinking and make sure it is safe, he said. People living alone do not have this advantage.

However, the study could not say whether alcohol abuse wasa cause or effect of living alone.

But the findings suggest people living alone are more vulnerable to adverse health outcomes after an increase in alcohol availability, the researchers said.

More studies are needed to determine if the findings apply to other countries, the researchers said.

Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Rachael Rettner on Twitter @RachaelRettner. Find us on Facebook.

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