April 19, 2018

'Serious wake-up call': A second glass of alcohol per day could reduce your life expectancy

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on March 29, 2019.

    Consuming more than one alcoholic beverage per day could reduce life expectancy—a finding that suggests U.S. guidelines for male alcohol consumption might be too high, according to a study in The Lancet.

    Study details

    For the study, researchers analyzed alcohol consumption in relation to all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease. Overall, the researchers reviewed data from 83 studies, accounting for nearly 600,000 current alcohol drinkers—none of whom had previously had cardiovascular disease—from 19 high-income countries.

    Participants self-reported their alcohol consumption, with about half saying they consumed more than 100 grams of alcohol per week. According to the Associated Press, the amount of alcohol in a drink varies across countries. In the United States, 100 grams is equivalent to consuming seven 12-ounce cans of beer, seven 5-ounce glasses of wine, or seven 1.5-ounce shots of distilled spirits—roughly one alcoholic beverage per day a week.

    The researchers noted that the study was not designed to determine a causal relationship between alcohol consumption and all-cause mortality linked to cardiovascular disease. The researchers also said they did not account for changes in alcohol consumption.

    Findings

    The researchers found that both men and women who consumed more than 100 grams of alcohol a week had a higher risk of all-cause mortality than those who consumed less alcohol.

    Overall, the study estimated that when compared with a 40-year-old man who drinks between zero and 100 grams of alcohol per year, a 40-year-old man who each week drinks:

    • More than 350 grams of alcohol will see life expectancy decrease by four to five years;
    • 200-350 grams of alcohol per week will see life expectancy decrease by one to two years; and
    • 100-200 grams of alcohol per week will see life expectancy decrease by about six months.

    Are current drinking guidelines too lenient?

    Based on the findings, the researchers recommended the United States–along with other countries–revise their alcohol consumption guidelines to set the recommended upper limit to no more 100 grams of alcohol per week.

    The U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion under current guidelines recommends that men who drink alcoholic beverages consume no more than 196 grams of alcohol per week and women consume no more than 98 grams of alcohol per week.

    Comments

    Dan Blazer of Duke University and a co-author of the study said the findings have "shown that drinking alcohol at levels which were believed to be safe is actually linked with lower life expectancy and several adverse health outcomes." He advised physicians to discuss the findings with patients, noting, "I think this is perhaps a good warning that even what they may consider to be moderate—which might be a couple of drinks a day, every day of their lives—may be too much."

    Jeremy Pearson—associate medical director of the British Heart Foundation, which partly funded the study—said the study's findings serve as "a serious wake-up call for many countries."

    Separately, David Jernigan—an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, who researches alcohol—said the study's findings mean that "if you're really concerned about your longevity, don't have more than a drink a day."

    Citing the risks posed to a hypothetical 40-year-old man specifically, David Spiegelhalter, professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, added that the risks of drinking more than the study's recommended daily limit was comparable to smoking. "The paper estimates a 40-year-old drinking four units a day above the guidelines (the equivalent of drinking three glasses of wine in a night) has roughly two years' lower life expectancy, which is around a 20th of their remaining life. This works out at about an hour per day.," he said. "So it's as if each unit above guidelines is taking, on average, about 15 minutes of life, about the same as a cigarette. ... Of course, it's up to individuals whether they think this is worthwhile" (Rossman, USA Today, 4/12; Stobbe, AP/ABC News, 4/13; Wood et al., The Lancet, 4/12; Achenbach, Washington Post, 4/12; Bosley, The Guardian, 4/13).

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