According to a new study published in The Lancet, consuming more than 10 standard drinks per week can shorten your life. The current guidelines1 set by the Department of Health, recommend no more than 2 standard drinks per day. These guidelines are currently under review and the new research adds to growing evidence suggesting they should be reduced.
10 Standard Drinks?
Every glass that is consumed above the 10-standard drink weekly limit will shorten a person’s life by 30 minutes. If someone chooses to consume any more than 3 standard drinks per day or 5 standard drinks per day, their life expectancy will decrease by 1-2 years and 4-5 years, respectively. On top of that, drinking more than 10 standard drinks per week brings a myriad of other health risks such as: stroke, heart failure, fatal hypertensive disease (high blood pressure), fatal aortic aneurysm, heart disease and cancer. The risk of developing fatal high blood pressure alone is increased by 24% when the 10 standard drink limit is exceeded, and the risk of having a stroke is increased by 14%. These are just some of the long-term effects of alcohol consumption when the limits are ignored.
Understandably, there has been quite a large and passionate response to the release of this new study. Some, like the Daily Telegraph, have criticised it for being “impractical” and have called the authors of the study “buzzkillers and… demonisers of alcohol”. Others, like The Guardian, have said that “the findings ought to be widely disseminated and they should provoke informed public and professional debate” and “This study makes clear that on balance there are no health benefits from drinking alcohol…”.
Why do some have a negative view of this study?
Those who have a negative view of the study have specifically criticised the fact that non-drinkers were excluded from it. However, there are (very good) reasons for this being the case:
- ‘Non-drinkers’ also include ‘ex-drinkers’ who may experience poor health related to their past drinking, even if they don’t currently drink. This effect is responsible for a large proportion of the research that suggests that moderate drinkers have better health than non-drinkers according to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).
- The goal of the study wasn’t to recommend whether people should or should not drink. It was to establish the effects on health for those people that choose to drink.
The second largest criticism is about a J-shaped curve (“a curved decline up to about 10 glasses of wine or equivalent per week, then a curved incline as consumption increases towards [higher] levels…”). This effect is true if you look at diseases in isolation. For example, in the study we are looking at, a decline in some heart-disease-related death was observed for people that drank less than 6 glasses of wine (or equivalent) per week. What they failed to recognise was that this ‘benefit’ is completely offset by the detrimental effects of alcohol when it comes to other diseases, particularly in the case of cancer. When all diseases are taken into account there is no overall benefit to health whatsoever, even among moderate drinkers.
Having said that, it appears likely that true moderate drinking (less than 9-10 standard drinks per week) does not have significant detriments to overall health. The study states that “…the lowest risk [is] for those consuming below [10 standard drinks] per week.”. Moderate drinking probably won’t harm your overall health, but many Australians consider ‘moderate drinking’ to be much more than 1 glass of wine a day.
What is this study saying?
As stated earlier, the purpose of this study was not to recommend whether people should drink alcohol or not. It was to inform those choosing to drink of the risks and long-term effect of alcohol consumption that exceeds the 10-standard drinks limit. It has also added to the evidence that the current guidelines1, which recommend no more than 2 drinks per day, may be too high. However, we might see change to that guideline sooner than some might expect. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is currently in the process of revising the Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol 2009 and has plans to have a draft of the revised guidelines around this time next year. With this study coming out right at the beginning of the NHMRC’s evidence evaluation period, it will mostly likely have a big influence on the new guidelines we will see in a few short years.