Alcohol Consumption Frequency and Quantity Genetically Related but Differ With External Phenotypes

Man sitting on bed with a glass of alcohol
Man sitting on bed having a drink
Alcohol consumption frequency in the entire sample and alcohol consumption amount in regular drinkers were genetically and phenotypically correlated, although genetic correlations between the 2 measures and external phenotypes displayed opposite directions.

High frequency of alcohol consumption may be genetically linked to higher socioeconomic status (SES), lower levels of smoking, and decreased risk of some psychiatric diseases, whereas high amounts of alcohol consumption was associated with low SES, increased smoking, and elevated risk of some psychiatric diseases, according to a study published in Psychological Medicine. High alcohol consumption frequency has previously been correlated with increased negative health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease.

The researchers analyzed Genome-Wide Association Study (GWAS) data from the UK Biobank (N=501,731; age range, 40-69 years) to test genetic associations with alcohol consumption frequency (n=438,308), as well as quantity in self-reported regular drinkers who consumed alcohol at least once or twice a week (n=348,039). They considered other phenotypes, including 8 substance use disorder traits, 13 personality and psychological traits, 11 other psychiatric traits, and 9 SES-related measures.

Alcohol consumption frequency in the entire sample and alcohol consumption amount in regular drinkers were genetically (genetic correlations [rg], 0.52; P =1.31·10−131) and phenotypically (rg, 0.62; P <.001) correlated. Although alcohol consumption frequency and quantity were positively correlated, genetic correlations between external phenotypes and the 2 measures often displayed opposite directions.

In the full sample, frequency of alcohol consumption was genetically correlated with 31 of the 40 phenotypic traits (FDR-adjusted P-value, <0.05). Frequent drinking was genetically associated with higher SES and reduced levels of smoking, ADHD, and depression. Frequency was also genetically correlated with reduced insomnia and tiredness, as well as increased cognitive function, subjective wellbeing, and loneliness. The researchers did not find any correlation between alcohol consumption frequency and alcohol dependence.

In the population of regular drinkers, quantity of alcohol consumption was genetically correlated with 27 phenotypic traits (FDR-adjusted P-value <0.05). In contrast to high alcohol consumption frequency, quantity was genetically associated with lower SES, as well as increased smoking, alcohol dependence, and risk of schizophrenia, ADHD, and depression. High alcohol consumption amount was also genetically associated with increased insomnia and tiredness and lower subjective wellbeing and cognition.

Limitations of the study included potential selection bias due to a low response rate in the UK Biobank sample population (<5%), reliance on common SNPs in analyses, and loss of power with a smaller sample size for regular drinkers.

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Overall, the results of the study indicate SES may mediate genetic correlations between alcohol consumption metrics and associated negative health outcomes. The researchers concluded that alcohol consumption quantity and frequency could not be used interchangeably when assessing the risk of alcohol dependence given the opposite directional associations with various phenotypic traits.

“Due to the complex pattern of associations between alcohol consumption quantity/frequency with external variables (e.g. SES) observed in our study, it is clear that statements such as ‘one glass of red wine is good for your health’ are a simplification of the true picture,” the researchers noted.

Disclosure: A study author reported financial support from the pharmaceutical industry. Please see the original reference for a full list of disclosures.


Marees AT, Smit DJA, Ong JS, et al. Potential influence of socioeconomic status on genetic correlations between alcohol consumption measures and mental health. Psychol Med. 2020;50(3):484-498.