More than 5 drinks a week could shorten your life

New study found upper safe limit of drinking was about 5 drinks per week

Tuesday 1 May 2018

By June Shannon

Regular excessive drinking shortens your life and puts you at increased risk of stroke and heart failure, according to new research.

The study revealed that drinking more alcohol was associated with a higher risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm, heart failure and death.

The research compared the health and drinking habits of approximately 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 alcohol, 12.5 units or just over five pints of 4% alcohol by volume (ABV) beer or five 175ml glasses of 13% ABV wine).

However, drinking above this limit was linked with lower life expectancy. For example, it looked at a 40 year old and found that if he/she had 10 or more drinks per week this was linked with 1-2 years shorter life expectancy and 18 drinks or more per week was linked with 4-5 years shorter life expectancy, if he/she continued to drink at this amount and frequency for life.

Drinking more alcohol was associated with a higher risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm, heart failure and death.

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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 also carries implications for countries across the world, where alcohol guidelines vary substantially.

In Ireland the recommended low-risk limits for alcohol consumption are 17 standard drinks (=170 grams (or 210 mls) of pure alcohol e.g. half a pint of beer, spread out over the course of a week, with at least two to three alcohol-free days for men and 11 standard drinks (=110 grams (or 140 mls) of pure alcohol), spread out over the course of a week, with at least two to three alcohol-free days for women.

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, heart failure, fatal aortic aneurysms, fatal hypertensive disease and heart failure 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.

“This study is a wake-up call about the effects of alcohol on cardiovascular risk. “

Dr Angie Brown , Medical Director, Irish Heart Foundation

The authors noted that the different relationships between alcohol intake 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 stressed 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 alcohol consumption 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, drinking less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditions.”

“Alcohol consumption 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,”

 

“Not only does it show that excessive drinking shortens your life but that it can affect the quality of your life as it increases the risk of stroke and heart failure."

Dr Angie Brown , Medical Director, Irish Heart Foundation

According to Dr Angie Brown, Medical Director of the Irish Heart Foundation, while many people know that alcohol affects the liver, “this study is a wake-up call about the effects of alcohol on cardiovascular risk.”

“Not only does it show that excessive drinking shortens your life but that it can affect the quality of your life as it increases the risk of stroke and heart failure.

If you drink alcohol drink less and be more aware of how much you do drink, you will feel more energetic, be less likely to put on weight in addition to reducing you risk of stroke and heart failure,” Dr Brown advised.

This study was published recently in the Lancet and part funded by the British Heart Foundation.

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