Seems like there are as many conflicting studies on alcohol’s effects on health as there are vineyards in France, but a new study should have you rethinking your drinking. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine analyzed data from more than 400,000 people ages 18 to 85 and found that, overall, those who had one to two drinks four or more times a week—what’s been thought of as a moderate amount—had a 20% higher risk for premature death compared with people who drank three times a week or less. In real-life terms, this increase in death risk becomes more significant the older you are because overall death risk increases with age.
One to two drinks four times a week is roughly half the limit suggested in the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans of one alcoholic drink per day for women, two for men.
CUTTING THROUGH ALCOHOL CONFUSION
The Washington University study is just one piece of research making headlines. An international group of researchers reviewed 700 global studies that looked at alcohol consumption and death around the world and concluded that the safest number of drinks is zero. Death from all causes, and particularly from cancer, rose as the amount of alcohol consumed went up.
But still other research provides a mixed message, certainly in terms of the amount of alcohol that can safely be consumed. A different international study that evaluated close to 600,000 drinkers found that a much wider range—zero to 10 drinks a week—was the safest amount. (It did also find that higher amounts decreased life expectancy incrementally…as an example, 35 drinks per week cut life expectancy by four to five years.)
Studies are conflicting because alcohol’s effects can vary based on many aspects of an individual’s genetic makeup and environment. For example, when parsing the findings, the Washington University research found that having one to two drinks three times a week was associated with a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease—so if you have a strong family history of cardiovascular disease, you may benefit from drinking this amount. But they also found that any amount of drinking increased the risk of dying of cancer—so if you have a strong family history of cancer, not drinking is your safest bet.
The bottom line: There isn’t one answer for everyone. But one thing is for sure—if you don’t drink already, don’t start with the hope of improving your health. There are no guidelines that recommend drinking if you’re a nondrinker.
If you do drink and you want to continue to enjoy it (in moderation, of course), consider your personal health risks when making a decision about quantity.