No amount of alcohol is healthy if you’re under 40, largely because of alcohol-related deaths in car crashes, injuries and homicides, according to a new global study.
If you’re 40 or older with no underlying health problems, however, new research has found that small amounts of alcohol can reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
“These diseases just happen to be major causes of death in much of the world,” said senior author Emmanuela Gakidou, professor of health indicators at the Institute for Health Indicators and Evaluation at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
“So when you look at the cumulative health impact, especially among older people, it shows that a little bit is actually better for you than no drinking at all.” For all other reasons, it is harmful at all levels of consumption.
Indeed, the study found no protective effect for diseases such as tuberculosis, hypertension, atrial fibrillation, liver disease, epilepsy, pancreatitis and many types of cancer.
“Alcohol guidelines, both global and national, tend to emphasize the difference between the level of consumption in men compared to women,” Gakidu said. “What our work suggests is that global guidelines, national guidelines and local guidelines would be more effective if they emphasized age rather than gender.”
The findings underscore “the importance of alcohol recommendations that are tailored to specific regions and populations,” Amanda Berger, vice president of science and health at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, told CNN in an email.
“Importantly, no one needs to drink alcohol to get potential health benefits, and some people don’t need to drink at all.”
The report, published Thursday in the Lancet journal, is the first to report alcohol risk by global geographic region, age, gender and year, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which prepared the study.
The analysis looked at 30 years of data on people aged 15 to 95 from 204 countries and territories collected by the institute’s Global Burden of Disease, Injury and Risk Factor Study, which tracks premature death and disability from more than 300 diseases.
The analysis estimates that 1.34 billion people worldwide consumed harmful amounts of alcohol in 2020. More than 59% of people who drank unsafe amounts of alcohol were between the ages of 15 and 39. Over two thirds are men.
In each geographic region, the study found that drinking alcohol had no health benefits for people under the age of 40, but increased the risk of injuries such as motor vehicle crashes, suicide and homicide.
The study defines a standard drink as 10 grams of pure alcohol, which can be a small 3.4 fluid ounce (100 milliliter) glass of red wine, a standard 12 fluid ounce (355 milliliter) can, or a bottle of beer (3.5% alcohol), or 1 fluid ounce of alcohol (30 milliliters), which is 40% alcohol by volume.
While praising the analysis as well done, some experts not involved in the study expressed concern about the study’s conclusions.
Statistics show there are “over 14 times more alcohol-related deaths in the UK among 70-74-year-olds than 20-24-year-olds”, said Colin Angus, senior research fellow at the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group at the UK’s University of Sheffield, in a statement. The data “contradicts the claim in this new study that we should focus on drinking in younger age groups,” Angus said.
“The elephant in the room with this study is the interpretation of risk based on cardiovascular disease outcomes — particularly in older adults,” said Dr. Tony Rao, visiting clinical research fellow in the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience at King’s College London.
“We know that any purported health benefits of alcohol on the heart and circulation are balanced by an increased risk of other conditions such as cancer, liver disease and mental disorders such as depression and dementia,” Rao said in a statement.
A study published in March found that just one pint of beer or glass of wine a day can reduce total brain volume, with damage increasing as the number of daily drinks rises. On average, people in their 50s who drank a pint of beer or a 6-ounce glass of wine a day in the past month had brains that looked two years older than those who drank just half a beer.
Research in the US shows that drinking among adults has increased during the pandemic, especially among women, with “a 41 percent increase in heavy drinking days,” said Dr. Sarah Wakeman, medical director of the Substance Use Disorders Initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital, in an earlier interview with CNN.
A study published in June found that many moderate drinkers over the age of 30 binge on the weekend – defined as five or more drinks in a row or within a short period of time. Drinking an average of more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men – or five or more drinks on the same occasion – was associated with alcohol problems nine years later.
Women are especially sensitive to the effects of alcohol, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, or NIAA. Alcohol-related problems appear earlier and at lower levels of drinking than in men, the report said.
Women are more susceptible to alcohol-related brain damage and heart disease than men, and studies show that women who drink one drink a day increase their risk of breast cancer by 5% to 9% compared to those who abstain.
“The recommendation that people under 40 should not drink at all is completely unrealistic,” Matt Lambert, chief executive of the Portman Group, the industry-funded group that regulates alcohol marketing in the U.K., said in an email.
Gakidou, the study’s lead author, acknowledged that “it’s not realistic to think that young adults will stop drinking. However, we feel it is important to communicate the latest evidence so that everyone can make informed decisions about their health.’
For people over age 65, any increase in drinking is worrisome because many older people “use medications that can interact with alcohol, have health problems that can be worsened by alcohol, and can be more susceptible to alcohol-related falls and other accidental injuries,” the NIAA said.
“There is a high threshold for us to say that alcohol is an effective preventive therapy, and the studies so far have not met that threshold. If they did, then you can be sure that the drinks industry would be applying to the FDA for a license,” said Dr Nick Sharon, professor in the department of hepatology at the UK’s University of Southampton.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation last published a report on alcohol four years ago, when it analyzed data on the global burden of disease for 2016 for people aged 15 to 49, finding that no amount of alcohol, wine or beer safe for overall health.
“What we have done in this new study is a more detailed and nuanced analysis of 21 different world regions,” Gakidou said. “What we’ve been able to do now is break it down: Who is alcohol bad for? Who is alcohol good for? That’s why the message looks different, but it’s actually consistent with what we said before.
“If you ask me, ‘Will the message be different in 10 years?'” Maybe. New evidence is likely to come out,” she said. “It can change our thinking.”