A comprehensive study, looking into alcohol consumption limits across 19 countries, has found that drinking more than 25 units of alcohol a week (roughly 11 pints of lower-strength beer or 11 medium glasses of wine) could shorten a person’s life by up to two years, or by four to five years for more than 43 units (18 pints of beer or 18 glasses of wine).
The Lancet study, which analysed just under 600,000 drinkers who were over the age of 40, modelled how many years could be lost if subjects did not change their drinking habits for the rest of their lives. The findings also showed that binge-drinkers had the highest risk of death from any cause, particularly those consuming beer and spirits.
The threshold for lowest risk of death from any cause was capped at around 12.5 units per week (just under six pints of beer or six glasses of wine), and less than this amount was deemed to be ‘light drinking’ and was not associated with an increased risk of death.
There was also evidence to suggest that a long-term reduction in alcohol consumption in men from around 25 units to under 12.5 was connected with a longer life expectancy of one to two years at the age of 40.
Aside from the findings into risk of death, there was also analysis of the relationship between alcohol and the risk of cardiovascular diseases. These findings suggested that there was a higher risk of disease amongst all stroke types, heart failures and other cardiovascular diseases for those who drank alcohol. However for myocardial infarction (heart attacks), a lower risk of disease was associated with a higher consumption of alcohol.
What is the current advice on alcohol?
Current UK guidelines for alcohol consumption set in 2016 recommend a limit of 14 units per week. This is significantly lower than many other countries. For instance in the US, there is a huge discrepancy between the advice for men and women: it is almost double for men (at 24.5) but only 12.3 for women.
Should guideline limits be lowered?
The study findings have brought into question whether the guidelines should be reconsidered and updated. The study also debunks the notion that a glass of wine can be good for the heart, asserting that there are no associated health benefits of drinking alcohol (even in very small amounts).
Speaking to the BBC, Richard Piper from Alcohol Research UK said that the current alcohol limits are at the right level.
He added that people drinking 20, 30 or 40 units were putting themselves at risk, and that for people who do drink, staying under five or six drinks per week was the best advice. The notion held by some moderate drinkers that health benefits derive from alcohol, he went on to say, was not supported by evidence.