Improving the quality of alcohol-related care requires practical approaches to assessing alcohol consumption to guide management and monitor outcomes. Given the increasing use of alcohol screening questionnaires to identify alcohol misuse it would be ideal if scores on screening questionnaires were also indicators of average alcohol consumption. However, the questionnaires were not designed for this purpose and include dimensions of drinking that may not reflect average consumption (e.g. heavy episodic drinking, alcohol-related problems).
In a general population sample, scores on the AUDIT-C screen correlated with reports of alcohol consumption in detailed interviews, but the relationship is unknown for clinical populations and other questionnaires. Serum high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL) is a biomarker routinely obtained in clinical care and is known to rise with average alcohol consumption. This cross-sectional study of 11,175 male U.S. Veterans Affairs patients enrolled in a primary care study used HDL as an objective biomarker to evaluate whether average alcohol consumption increased as scores increased on 3 brief alcohol screens – the AUDIT-C, AUDIT Question #3 (a single-item screen), and the CAGE questionnaire.
Mean HDL progressively increased as screening scores increased for the AUDIT-C and AUDIT Question #3: about 12 mg/dL from the lowest to the highest scores. The association was much weaker for the CAGE questionnaire.
Results were minimally affected by adjustment for covariates (e.g. age, race, medical comorbidity, smoking, medication count, and depression) but the association was modified (p = 0.008) and mildly attenuated by adherent use of lipid-lowering medications.
This study using HDL as a biomarker of average alcohol consumption adds to evidence that some alcohol screening scores may also serve as scaled markers of average alcohol consumption.
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