Regularly drinking more than the recommended UK guidelines for alcohol could take years off your life, according to new research from the University of Cambridge. Part-funded by the British Heart Foundation, the study shows that drinking more alcohol is associated with a higher risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm, heart failure and death.
The study compared the health and drinking habits of over 600,000 people in 19 countries worldwide and controlled for age, smoking, history of diabetes, level of education and occupation.
The upper safe limit of drinking was about five drinks per week (100g of pure alcohol, 12.5 units or just over five pints of 4% ABV beer or five 175ml glasses of 13% ABV wine). However, drinking above this limit was linked with lower life expectancy. For example, having 10 or more drinks per week was linked with one to two years shorter life expectancy. Having 18 drinks or more per week was linked with four to five years shorter life expectancy.
The research, published in the Lancet, supports the UK’s recently lowered guidelines, which since 2016 recommend both men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol each week. This equates to around six pints of beer or six glasses of wine a week.
However, the worldwide study carries implications for countries across the world, where alcohol guidelines vary substantially.
The researchers also looked at the association between alcohol consumption and different types of cardiovascular disease. Alcohol consumption was associated with a higher risk of stroke, heart failure, fatal aortic aneurysms, fatal hypertensive disease and heart failure and there were no clear thresholds where drinking less did not have a benefit.
By contrast, alcohol consumption was associated with a slightly lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks.
The authors note that the different relationships between alcohol intake and various types of cardiovascular disease may relate to alcohol’s elevating effects on blood pressure and on factors related to elevated high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) (also known as ‘good’ cholesterol). They stress that the lower risk of non-fatal heart attack must be considered in the context of the increased risk of several other serious and often fatal cardiovascular diseases.
The study focused on current drinkers to reduce the risk of bias caused by those who abstain from alcohol due to poor health. However, the study used self-reported alcohol consumption and relied on observational data, so no firm conclusions can me made about cause and effect. The study did not look at the effect of alcohol consumption over the life-course or account for people who may have reduced their consumption due to health complications.
Dr Angela Wood, from the University of Cambridge, lead author of the study said: “If you already drink alcohol, drinking less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditions.
“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.”
Commenting on the study James Calder, Head of Communications at the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) said;
“This study completely overlooks the well documented health benefits light to moderate enjoyment of alcohol brings. The incidence of Type II diabetes, coronary heart disease, haemorrhagic stroke, pancreatitis, osteoporosis, macular degeneration and gall bladder disease are just some of the conditions that are lower in sensible drinkers. The mental and social benefits of enjoying alcohol sensibly are also overlooked. We have 40 years of research, which shows light to moderate drinking equals improved cognitive function and memory in ageing as well as reduced chance of vascular dementia. What about the simple, social, improvements to quality of life that being in a pub or taproom with your friends and family regularly brings to our wellbeing?”
“The well known J shaped relationship between alcohol consumption and mortality shows that with light to moderate consumption, your relative risk of total mortality drops significantly when compared to teetotallers.”
“Sadly we live in an era where those in the temperance and health movements refuse to accept the facts: that sensible alcohol consumption has health benefits and that adults should be informed to make their own choices, not nannied into submission.”