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July 19, 2022

Is drinking unsafe for people under 40?

Daily Briefing

    For young people ages 15 to 39, alcohol consumption poses significant health risks—and comes without any health benefits, according to the Global Burden of Diseases study, an ongoing research project based at the University of Washington (UW).

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    Study details and key findings

    For the study, which was published in The Lancet, researchers analyzed 30 years of data on individuals ages 15 to 95 from 204 countries and territories collected for the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation's (IHME) Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study.

    Overall, researchers estimated that 1.34 billion people around the world consumed unsafe amounts of alcohol in 2020. In particular, they found that 59% of individuals who drank dangerous amounts of alcohol were between 15 and 39 years old and almost 77% were male.

    Across every geographic region, the study found that alcohol consumption does not provide any health benefits to individuals under age 40—but it does increase their risk of injury, including motor vehicle accidents, suicides, and homicides.

    To determine how much alcohol a person can drink before facing added health risks, researchers used 2020 Global Burden of Disease data to analyze the risk of alcohol consumption for 22 health outcomes, including injuries, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers.

    According to the study, a standard drink is 10 grams of pure alcohol—the equivalent of a 3.4-fluid ounce glass of wine, a standard 12-fluid ounce can or bottle of beer (3.5% alcohol), or a 1-fluid ounce shot of spirits that is 40% alcohol by volume.

    Males aged 15-39 increased their health risks by drinking just over one-tenth of a standard drink, while women faced increased risks by drinking around 25% of a standard drink.

    For those older than 40, the researchers said that consuming a small amount of alcohol can provide some health benefits, including a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes. However, they noted that health risks vary by age and region. Still, the recommended daily intake for older adults was less than two standard drinks.

    "Even if a conservative approach is taken and the lowest level of safe consumption is used to set policy recommendations, this implies that the recommended level of alcohol consumption is still too high for younger populations," said lead study author Dana Bryazka. 

    "Our estimates, based on currently available evidence, support guidelines that differ by age and region," Bryazka continued. "Understanding the variation in the level of alcohol consumption that minimizes the risk of health loss for populations can aid in setting effective consumption guidelines, supporting alcohol control policies, monitoring progress in reducing harmful alcohol use, and designing public health risk messaging." 

    "Our message is simple: Young people should not drink, but older people may benefit from drinking small amounts," said Emmanuela Gakidou, UW professor of health metrics sciences at IHME. "While it may not be realistic to think young adults will abstain from drinking, we do think it's important to communicate the latest evidence so that everyone can make informed decisions about their health."


    While some experts praised the study, others expressed concern about its conclusions.

    For instance, Colin Angus, a senior research fellow at the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group at the University of Sheffield, noted that statistics indicate there are "over 14 times as many alcohol-attributable deaths in the UK among 70-74 year-olds than 20-24 year-olds." Angus said the data "contradicts the assertion in this new study that we should focus on the drinking of younger age groups."

    "The elephant in the room with this study is the interpretation of risk based on outcomes for cardiovascular disease-—particularly in older people," said Tony Rao, visiting clinical research fellow at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King's College London.

    "We know that any purported health benefits from alcohol on the heart and circulation are balanced out by the increased risk from other conditions such as cancer, liver disease and mental disorders such as depression and dementia," Rao added. (Barnes, The Hill, 7/15; Alund, USA Today, 7/17; Gregory, The Guardian, 7/14; LaMotte, CNN, 7/14)

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