How Much Alcohol Is Safe?
I understand that even moderate drinking can shave years off life expectancy. Is any amount of alcohol considered safe?
Andrew Weil, M.D. | June 18, 2018
Results from a comprehensive international investigation published in April 2018 have raised concerns about the safety of moderate drinking as defined in the U.S. and elsewhere. Based on the new findings, regardless of whether you’re male or female, if you have more than one drink a day, you’re likely consuming too much alcohol. A team of 120 researchers participated in the effort, led by investigators from the UK’s University of Cambridge. They reviewed 83 existing studies, involving data on 599,912 current alcohol drinkers from 19 high-income countries. None had a history of cardiovascular disease at the outset. The investigation found that about half the participants reported drinking more than 100 grams of alcohol per week while 8.4 percent consumed more than 350 grams per week.
After adjusting for health factors including smoking, age, a history of diabetes, occupation and level of education, the researchers correlated alcohol consumption with health outcomes over the next seven to eight years. They concluded that drinking more than the amount now considered safe in the UK could take years off one’s life. The UK recommended limits of five to six pints of beer or six to seven glasses of wine per week were adopted in 2016 and are the same for men and women. (Current U.S. government guidelines for low-risk drinking specify no more than two drinks per day for men, only one for women, and less than that if you’re over age 65.)
Exceeding the UK limits was linked to a 14 percent higher risk of stroke, a nine percent higher risk of heart failure, a 24 percent higher risk of fatal hypertensive disease (high blood pressure), and a 15 percent higher risk of a fatal aortic aneurysm. Moreover, the study found that for a 40-year-old, having 10 or more drinks per week reduced life expectancy by one to two years, while imbibing 18 or more shortened life by four to five years.
The results did show a link between alcohol consumption and a slightly reduced incidence of non-fatal heart attacks, but study leader Angela Wood said that benefit is overshadowed by the risks.
In addition to the increased risk of stroke, heart failure and other forms of heart disease, the report upheld a link between alcohol consumption and cancers of the digestive system.
For the record, a 2017 statement from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) made the point that drinkers face higher risks than nondrinkers for developing cancers of the throat, larynx, esophagus, breast, liver, and colon. The more you drink and the longer you’ve been drinking, the higher your risk, especially for head and neck cancers. The ASCO statement noted, however, that even a single drink a few days a week is linked to a slightly increased risk for squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus, oropharyngeal cancer and breast cancer.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Angela M. Wood et al, “Risk thresholds for alcohol consumption: combined analysis of individual-participant data for 599 912 current drinkers in 83 prospective studies.” The Lancet, April 14, 2018, doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30134-X