Even Moderate Drinking Affects Longevity
Regularly drinking more than five alcoholic drinks a week could take years off your life, according to a new, global study examining the long term effects of alcohol published recently in the Lancet. 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 authors say their findings challenge the widely held belief that the effects of moderate alcohol consumption on the heart are beneficial.
The study compared the health and drinking habits of around 600,000 current drinkers in 19 countries worldwide and controlled for age, smoking, history of diabetes, level of education and occupation, in order to determine the long term effects of alcohol on heart health and longevity.
Drinking more than 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) was linked with lower life expectancy. Having 10 or more drinks per week was linked with 1-2 years shorter life expectancy, and having 18 drinks or more per week was linked with four to five years shorter life expectancy.
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, fatal aortic aneurysms, fatal hypertensive disease, and heart failure. 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 consumption and various types of heart 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 be 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.
“The key message of this research is that, if you already drink alcohol, drinking less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditions,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Angela Wood, from the University of Cambridge. “This is a serious wake-up call for many countries.”