Alcohol carries significant health risks and no benefits for young people but some older adults may gain from drinking a small amount, according to the largest study of its kind.
The conclusion comes from the authors of the Global Burden of Diseases study, a rolling project based at the University of Washington in Seattle, which produces the most comprehensive data on the causes of illness and death in the world.
Four years ago the study said that even the occasional drink was harmful to health, and suggested governments should advise people to abstain entirely.
But after a major new analysis of global data, the experts behind the study have reached fresh conclusions. Young people face higher health risks from alcohol consumption than older adults, they say. But they add that adults aged 40 and older without underlying health conditions may benefit from limited alcohol consumption, such as a small glass of red wine a day, including a reduced risk in cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes.
Their findings, published in the Lancet, are the first to report alcohol risk by geographical region, age, sex, and year. They suggest that global alcohol consumption recommendations should be based on age and location, with the strictest guidelines for men aged 15-39, who are at the greatest risk of harmful alcohol consumption worldwide.
“Our message is simple: young people should not drink, but older people may benefit from drinking small amounts,” said the senior author, Dr Emmanuela Gakidou, professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine. “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.”
A total of 1.34 billion people are estimated to have consumed harmful amounts of alcohol in 2020, according to the analysis of drinking habits in 204 countries.
The study, published in the Lancet, found that 59% of those who drank harmful amounts were aged 15-39 – people for whom alcohol provided no health benefit and posed risks, including injuries relating to drinking or car accidents, suicides or murders. Three-quarters of harmful drinkers were men.
Researchers looked at the risk of alcohol consumption on 22 health outcomes, including injuries, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers, using 2020 Global Burden of Disease data.
Using this information, the researchers were able to estimate how much alcohol a person could drink before taking on excess risk to their health compared with someone who did not drink any alcohol.
They found that the level of alcohol that could be consumed without increasing health risks increased throughout a lifetime. Researchers deemed a standard drink as a 100ml glass of 13%-alcohol red wine or a 375ml can or bottle of 3.5% beer.
They found that for men aged 15-39, the recommended amount of alcohol before “risking health loss” was just 0.136 of a standard drink a day. For women of the same age, the “theoretical minimum risk exposure level” was 0.273 drinks – about a quarter of a standard drink a day.
For adults of 40 and older without any underlying health conditions, drinking a small amount of alcohol was linked to some health benefits, such as reducing the risk of ischaemic heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Among those aged 40-64, safe alcohol consumption levels ranged from about half a standard drink a day to almost two standard drinks. For those aged 65 or older, the risks of “health loss from alcohol consumption” were reached after consuming a little more than three standard drinks a day.
But on average, the recommended alcohol intake for adults over the age of 40 remained low, peaking at 1.87 standard drinks a day. After that the health risks increased with each drink, the Lancet reported.
Separate research published in the journal PLOS Medicine on Thursday found consumption of seven or more units of alcohol a week was associated with higher iron levels in the brain. Iron in the brain has been linked to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and is a potential mechanism for alcohol-related cognitive decline.
Dr Richard Piper, chief executive of Alcohol Change UK, said: “The emerging science on alcohol, over hundreds of studies over the past 20 years, is telling us very clearly that alcohol is very damaging to the human body in multiple ways. We were previously unaware of this, and too many of us continue to drink as though this revolution in our knowledge hasn’t happened.
“If you care about your health, by far the best approach is not to drink at all. If you do choose to drink alcohol, listen properly to the UK’s chief medical officers, and do not exceed 14 units a week (about six pints of lager or a bottle and a half of wine), have at least three alcohol-free days a week, and never exceed more than six units in one day.”
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