The hidden health cost of that extra drink

April 13, 2018, British Heart Foundation
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Regularly drinking more than the recommended UK guidelines for alcohol could take years off your life, according to new research published today in the Lancet. Part-funded by the British Heart Foundation, the study shows that drinking more alcohol is associated with a higher risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm, heart failure and death.

The authors say their findings challenge the widely held belief that moderate drinking is beneficial to cardiovascular health, and support the UK's recently lowered guidelines.

The study compared the health and drinking habits of around 600,000 current drinkers in 19 countries worldwide and controlled for age, smoking, history of diabetes, level of education and occupation.

The upper safe limit of drinking was about 5 drinks per week (100g of pure , 12.5 units or just over five pints of 4% ABV2 beer or five 175ml glasses of 13% ABV wine).

However, drinking above this limit was linked with lower life expectancy. For example, having 10 or more drinks per week was linked with 1-2 years shorter life expectancy1. Having 18 drinks or more per week was linked with 4-5 years shorter life expectancy.

The research supports the UK's recently lowered guidelines, which since 2016 recommend both men and women should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol each week. This equates to around 6 pints of beer or 6 glasses of wine a week.

However, the worldwide study carries implications for countries across the world, where alcohol guidelines vary substantially.

The researchers also looked at the association between alcohol consumption and different types of cardiovascular disease. Alcohol consumption was associated with a higher risk of stroke, failure, fatal aortic aneurysms, fatal hypertensive disease and and there were no clear thresholds where drinking less did not have a benefit.

By contrast, alcohol consumption was associated with a slightly lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks.

The authors note that the different relationships between and various types of cardiovascular disease may relate to alcohol's elevating effects on blood pressure and on factors related to elevated high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) (also known as good cholesterol). They stress that the lower risk of non-fatal heart attack must be considered in the context of the increased risk of several other serious and often fatal cardiovascular diseases.

The study focused on current drinkers to reduce the risk of bias caused by those who abstain from alcohol due to poor health. However, the study used self-reported alcohol consumption and relied on observational data, so no firm conclusions can me made about cause and effect. The study did not look at the effect of over the life-course or account for people who may have reduced their consumption due to health complications.

Dr Angela Wood, from the University of Cambridge, lead author of the study said:

"The key message of this research is that, if you already drink alcohol, less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditions."

"Alcohol is associated with a slightly lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks but this must be balanced against the higher risk associated with other serious - and potentially fatal - cardiovascular diseases,"

Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, which part funded the study, said:

"This is a serious wakeup call for many countries."

Victoria Taylor, Senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation said:

"This powerful study may make sobering reading for countries that have set their recommendations at higher levels than the UK, but this does seem to broadly reinforce government guidelines for the UK.

"This doesn't mean we should rest on our laurels, many people in the UK regularly drink over what's recommended.

"We should always remember that alcohol guidelines should act as a limit, not a target, and try to drink well below this threshold."

Explore further: Q&A: Is daily drinking problem drinking?

Related Stories

Q&A: Is daily drinking problem drinking?

February 21, 2018
Dear Mayo Clinic: Is it possible to become an alcoholic just by having one or two drinks nightly? I have a glass or two of wine with dinner but never drink to the point of feeling drunk. Should I be concerned?

Moderate alcohol consumption tied to lower heart failure risk

October 16, 2017
(HealthDay)—Moderate alcohol consumption is associated with reduced risk of heart failure but not atrial fibrillation (AF), according to a study published online Oct. 11 in JACC: Heart Failure.

Drinking hot tea associated with five-fold increased risk for esophageal cancer for some

February 6, 2018
Consuming hot tea at high temperatures is associated with an increased risk for esophageal cancer in those who also drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. The findings, based on long-term follow-up in more than 450,000 participants, ...

Moderate drinking has risks and benefits, heavy drinking heightens short- and long-term risk of heart attack, stroke

March 2, 2016
Drinking alcohol is associated with an immediate higher risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. The risk lessens and can become protective after 24 hours for moderate drinking but remains high for heavy drinking, according ...

How much alcohol is really OK?

October 2, 2017
(HealthDay)—All the good news/bad news studies about alcohol can leave you confused. But research suggests that you still need to keep moderation in mind when you raise a glass.

Moderate alcohol consumption before and after heart attack associated with lower mortality

April 17, 2012
The Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS) is a prospective cohort study of 51,529 US male health professionals. During the follow up of these men between 1986 to 2006, published in the European Heart Journal, 1,818 ...

Recommended for you

Large restaurant portions a global problem, study finds

December 12, 2018
A new multi-country study finds that large, high-calorie portion sizes in fast food and full service restaurants is not a problem unique to the United States. An international team of researchers found that 94 percent of ...

Teens get more sleep with later school start time, researchers find

December 12, 2018
When Seattle Public Schools announced that it would reorganize school start times across the district for the fall of 2016, the massive undertaking took more than a year to deploy. Elementary schools started earlier, while ...

Receiving genetic information can change risk

December 11, 2018
Millions of people in the United States alone have submitted their DNA for analysis and received information that not only predicts their risk for disease but, it turns out, in some cases might also have influenced that risk, ...

Yes please to yoghurt and cheese: The new improved Mediterranean diet

December 11, 2018
Thousands of Australians can take heart as new research from the University of South Australia shows a dairy-enhanced Mediterranean diet will significantly increase health outcomes for those at risk of cardiovascular disease ...

Effect of oral alfacalcidol on clinical outcomes in patients without secondary hyperparathyroidism

December 11, 2018
Treatment with active vitamin D did not decrease cardiovascular events in kidney patients undergoing hemodialysis, according to a research group in Japan. They have reported their research results in the December 11 issue ...

Licence to Swill: James Bond's drinking over six decades

December 10, 2018
He may be licensed to kill but fictional British secret service agent James Bond has a severe alcohol use disorder, according to an analysis of his drinking behaviour published in the Medical Journal of Australia's Christmas ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.