In August, we covered a large-scale review that drew an unequivocal conclusion: it’s not, in fact, safe to drink any amount of alcohol.
Senior author Dr. Emmanuela Gakidou referred to the idea that one or two drinks are safe for health as “a myth.”
She said that her and her colleagues’ research found that any level of drinking is tied to an increased risk of early death, cancer, and cardiovascular events.
Now, researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO, have discovered even more about just how harmful it can be to have even as little as one drink per day.
The new study focused on the impact of alcohol on light drinkers specifically, so its findings — now published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research — are relevant to a large segment of the population.
“It used to seem like having one or two drinks per day was no big deal, and there even have been some studies suggesting it can improve health,” says first author Dr. Sarah M. Hartz.
“But now we know that even the lightest daily drinkers have an increased mortality risk,” she cautions.
Even light drinking heightens death risk
The authors of the recent study analyzed data collected from 434,321 participants, aged 18–85. Of these, 340,668 (aged 18–85) were recruited via the National Health Interview Survey, and 93,653 (aged 40–60) provided health information as outpatients at Veterans Health Administration sites.
Dr. Hartz and team found that people who had one or two drinks four or more times weekly had a 20 percent higher risk of premature death, compared with those who drank only three times per week or less often. This increased death risk, the study authors add, remains consistent across all age groups.
“A 20 percent increase in risk of death is a much bigger deal in older people who already are at higher risk,” notes Dr. Hartz.
“Relatively few people die in their 20s, so a 20 percent increase in mortality is small but still significant,” she adds.
“As people age, their risk of death from any cause also increases, so a 20 percent risk increase at age 75 translates into many more deaths than it does at age 25.”
Dr. Sarah M. Hartz
The risks outweigh any potential benefits
One study published earlier this year suggested that people who drink just a little — one drink each day, at most — appear to have lower cardiovascular risk than both people who drink more and people who shun alcohol entirely.
Dr. Hartz and team’s research, however, reveals that the health hazards that even people who drink lightly face outweigh any potential benefits.
When the scientists assessed the risk for heart disease and cancer, they saw that, on the whole, though drinking a little did help protect the heart in some cases, daily consumption — even when light — increased a person’s risk of cancer.
“Consuming one or two drinks about four days per week seemed to protect against cardiovascular disease, but drinking every day eliminated those benefits,” explains Dr. Hartz.
“With regard to cancer risk, any drinking at all was detrimental,” she warns.
However, Dr. Hartz also believes that in the future, health practitioners may want to develop more highly personalized guidelines for their patients.
Therefore, healthcare providers might advise people at risk of developing heart problems to drink on occasion. Conversely, they may encourage those who are at risk of cancer to give up drinking entirely.
“If you tailor medical recommendations to an individual person,” explains Dr. Hartz, “there may be situations under which you would think that occasional drinking potentially could be helpful.”
“But overall,” she reports, “I do think people should no longer consider a glass of wine a day to somehow be healthy.”
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