There are some health benefits to be gained from drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, but science cautions that it will start negatively affecting your health past a certain threshold. A new study has quantified the lifespan-shortening effects of alcohol, finding that for every extra glass of wine or pint of beer over a certain limit, people lose 30 minutes of their life. The risks of drinking over the allowed weekly limit for a 40-year-old were comparable to smoking, according to the study’s authors.
Drinking sensibly has been shown in the past to reduce the chance of a non-fatal heart attack and can even be good for the brain. However, it’s very easy to cross the dangerous threshold over which cardiovascular diseases have a field day.
The new meta-analysis (a study of studies) included 600,000 drinkers from 83 studies performed in 19 countries. Half of the participants reported consuming more than 100g of alcohol a week and 8.4% drank more than 350g per week (the heavy drinkers). The study suggests that the risk of premature death rose quickly when more than 100g of alcohol was consumed per week — that’s five to six glasses of wine or pints of beer.
On average, a 40-year-old who consumed twice this amount reduced their life expectancy by six months. Beyond that, between 200g and 350g a week, they can expect to lose one to two years of life. Finally, those who drank more than 350g a week shortened their lifespans by four to five years. The really heaviest drinkes out there might lose as many years of life as a smoker (ten years lost), the researchers say.
“Above two units a day, the death rates steadily climb,” David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the new study, told The Guardian.
“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. So it’s as if each unit above guidelines is taking, on average, about 15 minutes of life, about the same as a cigarette.
In 2016, the UK changed its national guidelines for alcohol consumption, reducing the recommended daily limit for alcohol. The decision was hotly debated and criticized at the time, but the new study supports the maximum of 14 units a week for both men and women set out by England’s chief medical officer. In countries like Italy, Spain, or the United States, the recommended limit is now almost double that in the UK (equating to up to two lost years of life). In other words, a lot of people might be indulging thinking they’re on the safe side, when, in fact, they might not be — and this is something definitely worth considering next time you go out.
The findings appeared in The Lancet medical journal.