New research has found that drinking as little as one alcoholic drink every day can shorten life expectancy. For a 40-year-old, consistently drinking 10 or more drinks per week could reduce life expectancy by one to two years, while drinking 18 or more drinks every week could shorten it by four to five years.
The authors say their findings, published on Friday in The Lancet, support the United Kingdom’s recently lowered alcohol consumption guidelines. Current UK guidelines recommend drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, an amount roughly equivalent to seven glasses of wine or six pints of beer.
Led by researchers at the University of Cambridge, the team analysed data from around 600,000 current alcohol drinkers in 19 high-income countries. Researchers controlled for age, history of diabetes, smoking status, level of education and occupation.
The data showed that drinking more than five drinks – 100g of pure alcohol – per week was linked to a higher risk of stroke, heart failure, fatal aneurysm and death.
Light drinkers, defined as individuals who consume around five drinks or less per week, were not found to have an increased risk of death. In fact, alcohol consumption in this group was linked to a slightly lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks. However, the authors cautioned that these benefits do not outweigh the health risks uncovered by their analysis.
“Alcohol consumption is associated with a slightly lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks but this must be balanced against the higher risk associated with other serious – and potentially fatal – cardiovascular diseases,” said Dr Angela Wood, lead author of the study and biostatistics lecturer at the University of Cambridge.
Dr Wood added that individuals seeking to reduce their risk of alcohol-related health complications could alter their drinking habits. “If you already drink alcohol, drinking less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditions,” she said.
The study did have several limitations, however. It did not appear to control for factors including family history of cardiovascular disease or stroke, amount and frequency of exercise, levels of stress and other lifestyle factors that could play a role in the observed health problems.
Additionally, because the study relied on self-reported alcohol consumption and observational data, the authors said in a Cambridge University press release, “no firm conclusions can be made about cause and effect.”
Even so, the authors recommended governments reduce their alcohol consumption guidelines.
“This powerful study may make sobering reading for countries that have set their recommendations at higher levels than the UK, but this does seem to broadly reinforce government guidelines for the UK,” said Victoria Taylor, senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation, which contributed to the study’s funding.
“This doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels, many people in the UK regularly drink over what’s recommended. We should always remember that alcohol guidelines should act as a limit, not a target, and try to drink well below this threshold,” Taylor added.
Additional funding for the study was provided by the UK Medical Research Council, National Institute for Health Research, European Union Framework 7 and European Research Council.