For decades, US guidelines have stated that drinking alcohol in moderation would not lead to medical problems for healthy adults. It also stated that it might even have positive benefits for heart health.
But a new analysis (Risk Thresholds for Alcohol Consumption, A Wood et al) published in the British journal The Lancet April 2018, questions the suggestion that an alcoholic drink or two a day is harmless or possibly beneficial.
The new analysis combines data from 83 studies with a total of nearly 600,000 participants. But it makes a new comparison; previously, research on alcohol has almost consistently compared the health of drinkers to non-drinkers.
But there is a key problem with this approach, as some people do not drink alcohol because of specific health problems, such as alcoholism or cancer. In comparison to drinkers, non-drinkers may be in poorer health due to these medical problems, and so comparing the two groups may make drinkers look healthier than they actually are.
The new analysis took a different approach, by comparing lighter drinkers to heavier drinkers in order to help answer the basic question of how much people can drink before they increase their risk of dying.
The research also found that drinking more than 100 grams of alcohol per week (about seven glasses of beer or wine) was associated with an increased risk of death. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines’ recommendation for men is double what the researchers found to be a safe amount.
The analysis also demonstrated that the more someone drank, the greater their risk of dying. Researchers found that people who drank seven to 14 alcoholic drinks a week lowered their life expectancy by about six months, that people who drank 14 to 24 drinks a week lowered their life expectancy by one to two years and that consuming more than 24 drinks a week lowered life expectancy by four to five years.
Looking at specific diseases, alcohol consumption led to an increased risk for stroke, coronary disease (not a heart attack), heart failure, fatal high blood pressure and aortic aneurysm. Moderate alcohol consumption did lower the risk of having a heart attack. But there are elements involved in health and nutrition that the new analysis was not able to consider.
For example, people who drink heavily are also more likely to smoke cigarettes, eat unhealthy foods and not exercise, so it is always difficult to ascertain if drinking is their primary problem, or whether other lifestyle choices are detrimental to health outcomes.
Alcohol consumption at lower levels may have more of an impact on health than we currently understand, but now there are a broad range of factors that inevitably contribute to our overall well-being.
Time passes, new understandings are brought into the equation on our health, but even if the jury is out, I still believe moderation of everything is the key.