October 18, 2017

How much alcohol promotes a longer life? A new study sheds light.

Daily Briefing

Light and moderate drinkers are less likely than their teetotaling or heavy-drinking peers to die early of any cause, according to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Study details

For the study, the researchers collected health data on more than 330,000 people for a median of eight years to assess how their alcohol consumption affected their mortality rates.

According to Reuters, the study aimed to clarify some of the discrepancies in prior research on alcohol intake stemming from "abstainer bias" and "sick quitter bias," Reuters reports. Many other studies on the topic have compared moderate drinkers with people who do not presently drink, Reuters reports—which means it is impossible to distinguish between lifelong teetotalers and those who previously consumed alcohol but opted to stop for health reasons later in life.

To account for those distinctions, the researchers in the latest study excluded people who died within the first two years of follow-up; tracked demographic, lifestyle, and health variables; and then divvied up the remaining participants into six categories:

  • Lifetime abstainers;
  • People who drink alcohol rarely;
  • Ex-drinkers;
  • Light drinkers, defined as those—male or female—who have fewer than three drinks per week;
  • Moderate drinkers, defined as those who have more than three drinks per week but fewer than 14 for men and seven for women; and
  • Heavy drinkers, defined as men who have more than 14 drinks per week and women who have more than seven drinks were per week.

Throughout the study, 34,754 people died, including 8,947 who died from cardiovascular disease, and 8,427 who died from cancer, the researchers said.

Results

The researchers found that light and moderate drinkers were 20 percent less likely to die prematurely of any cause than the lifetime abstainers. Moreover, when compared with lifetime abstainers, light- and moderate-drinkers were between 25 to 30 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.

According to the researchers, the benefits of moderate drinking were more pronounced for certain populations, including women, middle-aged and older adults, non-smokers, and white participants. Among younger participants—those between 18 and 39 years old—moderate drinking did not appear to curb mortality rates at all, the researchers said.

However, when compared to the lifetime abstainers, people who drank heavily were 11 percent more likely to die from any cause and 27 percent more likely to die from cancer. And people who binge drank at least once per week—women who consumed at least four drinks in two hours or less and men who consumed at least five drinks in two hours or less—were 16 percent more likely to die of any cause, but particularly from cancer-related causes.

The researchers did not find any significant association between heavy drinkers and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Discussion

According to the researchers, the findings suggest that light-to-moderate drinking "might be protective, especially for (cardiovascular disease), but heavy or binge drinking has serious health consequences, including death." They added, "A balance between beneficial and detrimental effects of alcohol consumption on health should be considered when making individual or population-wide recommendations, but the reduction of harmful or high consumption of alcohol remains necessary and essential."

In an editorial accompanying the study, researchers from the Mediterranean Neurological Institute in Italy said that the findings of the study "supported the conclusion that the J-shaped relationship between alcohol consumption and mortality risk cannot be dismissed, and should guide the formulation of public policies."

However, noting the study was observational, the editorial called for a long-term randomized control trial. Further, the editorial said the findings on the benefits of light to moderate drinking shouldn't necessarily change the behaviors of lifetime abstainers. Lifetime abstainers "should not start drinking for health reasons only, but should be encouraged to adopt healthy lifestyles," the editorial stated, such as regular exercise, healthy diet, and avoiding tobacco (Rapaport, Reuters, 8/14; Healy, Los Angeles Times, 8/14; MacMillan, TIME, 8/14).

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