Drinking too much can take years off of your life

A man drinking beer

In the United States low risk drinking is defined as two drinks a day for men and one drink for women.

A team of global researchers studied the drinking habits of nearly 600,000 current drinkers included in 83 studies across 19 countries where about 50% reported drinking more than 100 grams per week and 8.4% more than 350 grams per week.

"The paper estimates a 40-year-old drinking four units a day above the guidelines has roughly two years lower life expectancy", said David Spiegelhalter, a risk expert at Britain's University of Cambridge who was not involved in the study.

In Canada, it's recommended women drink a maximum of two glasses of beer or wine per day.

An analysis of almost 600,000 people found those drinking more than 100g of alcohol every week - around five 175ml glasses of wine or pints of beer - were at an increased risk of early death.

British guidelines were like the US standards until two years ago, when United Kingdom health officials brought the recommendation for men down to the level for women. They include Italy, Portugal and Spain as well as the USA, where for men the recommended limit is nearly double. The CDC's recommendation for moderate drinking among men would also put them in the "heavy drinking" category in La Crosse County, according to a 10-year study released in 2017.

"The key message of this research for public health is that, if you already drink alcohol, drinking less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditions", says Dr Angela Wood, lead author at the University of Cambridge.

Drinking more than 12.5 units of alcohol per week (about five pints of average-strength beer or five medium glasses of mid-strength wine) was found to be associated with increased overall risk of death, stroke, heart failure, fatal aortic aneurysm, and coronary heart disease, apart from non-fatal heart attacks.

The team also explored links between how much alcohol people consumed and their risk of different types of cardiovascular disease.

The study estimated that those who consume between 10 and 15 alcoholic drinks every week could have their lives shorted by one to two years, and even if you're only on five to 10 drinks a week, that could still shorten your life by up to six months. "This is a serious wakeup call for many countries", said Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, which helped fund the research.

Although the pool of data was extensive, information about alcohol consumption was self-reported, so the study's findings are limited. The US-government funded trial is "testing this amount [of alcohol] that appears to increase death", he says.

In contrast, drinking more was associated with a lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks. The highest level of drinking in the study - more than 350 grams per week - was linked with a 4- to 5-year reduction in life expectancy. It's not built to make firm conclusions about cause and effect.

That interpretation is not likely to be welcomed by the alcohol industry, which has embraced the idea, backed by the medical establishment, that moderate drinking may be good for you by lowering the risk of a heart attack.

The findings dovetail with recent research showing that even low levels of alcohol raise the risk of cancer, particularly breast and colon cancer.

"Evidence reviews on the health effects of alcohol consumption are now underway, which will help inform the recommendations in the revised guidelines", a spokesman says.

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