The jury has been out for a long time on the health effects of drinking alcohol. Is it good for your heart or bad? Previous studies have come to both conclusions, but researchers at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England, conducted a long-term study on nearly 600,000 participants from 19 high-income countries to fully analyze the health effects of alcohol consumption.
The conclusion was that alcohol consumption is correlated with a higher risk of stroke, heart failure, fatal aortic aneurysms, fatal hypertensive disease and heart failure. However, as previous studies have shown, alcohol consumption also does seem to have a positive impact on heart health, showing an associated lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks.
The authors cited possible reasons for this relationship, such as alcohol’s ability to alleviate blood pressure and its positive impacts on high-density lipoprotein cholesterol or “good” cholesterol.
It was also emphasized that this positive health impact from alcohol consumption should be considered alongside the serious negative effects.
The study assessed mortality risks for different levels of alcohol consumption.
After 100 grams of alcohol consumption a week, equivalent to about five drinks, the mortality risk began to increase. For example, 10 drinks per week was associated with a one or two year shorter life expectancy, while having 18 or more drinks per week was associated with a four to five year shorter life expectancy.
Age was also an active factor in the negative effects of alcohol. A 40 year old drinking over the recommended limit demonstrated health risks comparable to smoking.
Tim Chico, a professor of Cardiac Medicine at the University of Sheffield in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England, said smokers generally lose about 10 years off their life expectancy.
“I would not be surprised if the heaviest drinkers lost as many years of life as a smoker,” Chico said, according to The Guardian.
Ajay Prabhat, a senior at Hopkins, was surprised to find alcohol consumption could be as harmful as smoking.
“I’ve always thought that smoking and drinking were far different in terms of their destructive effects,” Prabhat said in an interview with The News-Letter.
The results of this study are meant to be a wake-up call for countries with a high suggested limit on alcohol consumption, as well as to support the U.K.’s recent decision to decrease the recommended limit on alcohol consumption.
In collecting data, the study also took note of confounding factors such as age, level of income, occupation and pre-existing health factors such as diabetes and smoking.
The researchers suggest a limit of 100 grams or five drinks per week, which is lower than many countries’ limits.
For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the U.S. defines low-risk drinking for women as three or less drinks a day and no more than seven drinks a week. For men it is defined as four or less drinks a day and no more than 14 drinks a week.
The process of collecting the data was also based on observation, and the participants would self-report alcohol consumption. The results are therefore subject to bias, and no firm conclusions can be made about the true cause-and-effect relationship of alcohol and physical health.
Olivia Gebhardt, a senior at Hopkins, was not entirely convinced by this study. In an interview with The News-Letter, she emphasized that it was most important to listen to what her body was saying, as alcohol affects everyone differently.
“I say, life is short, and as long as you’re not knowingly affecting your ability to live, then do what you want,” Gebhardt said.