The Buzzkill News About Drinking Alcohol
New research undermines wishful thinking
It was so comforting to think that a daily glass of wine or a stiff drink packed health benefits, warding off disease and extending life. But a distillation of the latest research reveals a far more sobering truth: Considering all the potential benefits and risks, some researchers now question whether any amount of alcohol can be considered good for you.
Compared with lifetime teetotalers, people who consume seven to 13 drinks a week are 53% more likely to have high blood pressure, defined as 130/80 or higher, according to a recent study of 17,059 U.S. adults published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
High blood pressure, known as the “silent killer,” raises the risk of heart attack, stroke, and dementia. The study’s lead researcher, Amer Aladin of Wake Forest Baptist Health, offers some frank advice: “If you are drinking a moderate or large amount of alcohol, ask your provider to check your blood pressure at each visit and help you cut down your drinking and eventually quit.”
For years, moderate drinking — typically defined as one drink (such as regular beer or a glass of wine) per day for women and up to two for men — had been billed as a way to reduce the risk of stroke, in which a vessel carrying blood to the brain bursts or is clotted. But a study earlier this year, involving more than 500,000 men and women in China and published in the Lancet, refutes that claim.
“There are no protective effects of moderate alcohol intake against stroke,” says one of the study’s co-authors, University of Oxford professor Zhengming Chen. “Even moderate alcohol consumption increases the chances of having a stroke.”
“The notion that one or two drinks a day is doing us good may just be wishful thinking.”
Another new study examined self-reported drinking habits and mental well-being of people in Hong Kong and the United States, and how those factors changed over a four-year period. The researchers compared lifetime abstainers to moderate drinkers to moderate drinkers who quit.
“Quitting drinking even at moderate levels was shown to be linked to a favorable change in mental well-being in both Chinese and Americans,” said study team member Michael Ni, who conducted the research with colleagues at the University of Hong Kong. The effect was most notable among women, the researchers report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
“Our study provides more evidence suggesting caution in recommending moderate drinking as part of a healthy diet,” Ni says.
Why so many misconceptions?
For several years now, scientists have been examining a new mix of evidence suggesting moderate drinking isn’t all wine and roses.
Five years ago, a review of 50 studies found that reducing alcohol intake, even for moderate drinkers, improves blood pressure and lowers the risk of heart disease. “Contrary to what earlier reports have shown, it now appears that any exposure to alcohol has a negative impact upon heart health,” reported Michael Holmes, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who co-authored the study in the journal BMJ.
A big flaw in many previous studies of alcohol consumption is that they included people who had quit drinking for health reasons, and so got recorded as unhealthy nondrinkers.
Meanwhile, many people who drank may have been healthy at the time a study was done. A review of 45 studies, done in 2017, accounted for that. It found that late-life nondrinkers don’t drink because they’re in poor health, while older people who aren’t sick tend to drink. But it’s not the drinking that led to their health status, the researchers say, leading to their conclusion that there’s no benefit to moderate drinking.
“The notion that one or two drinks a day is doing us good may just be wishful thinking,” Tim Stockwell, study team member from the University of Victoria in Canada, said back then.
Few were listening. And this new message on the perils of any amount of drinking may be getting lost, too. Globally, alcohol consumption per capita rose 10.2% between 1990 and 2017 and is expected to continue rising, according to a study earlier this year in the Lancet. In the United States, already ahead of many countries on per capita alcohol consumption, the figure rose 5.4%.
Meanwhile, alcohol is on the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s list of known carcinogens. The body breaks alcohol down into acetaldehyde, a chemical known to damage DNA and prevent the body from repairing it, setting up the possible growth of various cancers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What’s more, some 88,000 people in the United States die each year from alcohol-related causes, making it the third-leading preventable cause of death behind tobacco and the combined category of poor diet and physical inactivity.
The CDC offers this blunt advice: “If you don’t drink, don’t start drinking because of any possible health benefits.”
Negatives outweigh possible positives
One of the most comprehensive pieces of research giving a thumbs-down to moderate drinking came out last year, when researchers reported their analysis of data from 592 separate studies on the health risks of alcohol, and 694 studies on alcohol consumption.
“Previous studies have found a protective effect of alcohol on some conditions, but we found that the combined health risks associated with alcohol increase with any amount,” said lead author Max Griswold of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. The study, published in the Lancet, found a “strong association between alcohol consumption and the risk of cancer, injuries, and infectious diseases.” Among other findings, just one drink daily was linked to a 13% increased risk of breast cancer, 17% increased risk of esophageal cancer, and 13% higher risk of cirrhosis of the liver.
In an accompanying comment in the Lancet, Robyn Burton, a King’s College London researcher, wrote: “The conclusions of the study are clear and unambiguous.” She called the study the most comprehensive look ever at the global burden of alcohol consumption.
Like other researchers, Griswold acknowledges “potential protective effects” of alcohol for heart disease and diabetes. “However, our study found a much more marginal protective effect than previous studies and found those benefits were outweighed by the risks,” he says now. “More recent studies have been finding that the protective effect was likely due to confounding variables rather than a causal effect.”
The shifting advice on alcohol “is very confusing for people,” says Benjamin Han, an assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health whose research team recently found 10.6% of seniors are binge drinking — a particularly unhealthy habit. Han points out that moderate levels of alcohol can be risky for older people with health issues, or for women already at risk of developing breast cancer.
“I think of alcohol use in a health context and what risks people are comfortable with,” Han says. “Low risk does not mean no risk.”