Rethinking your drinking habits yet? According to a new study published in The Lancet, drinking more than the recommended limit of alcohol could significantly raise your risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm, and heart failure.
The meta-analysis looked at data for nearly 600,000 drinkers from 83 studies spanning 19 countries, controlling for factors such as age, sex, and pre-existing conditions. Approximately half of those included drank more than the recommended limit — which is 100 grams, the equivalent of five glasses of wine — per week, and 8.4 percent of those included drank more than 350 grams per week, the equivalent of around 17 glasses of wine.
Results showed that drinking any amount over the recommended limit of 100 grams resulted in a greater risk of early death. A 40-year-old who drank up to twice the daily limit decreased his or her life expectancy by six months. If a person drank 200 to 350 grams per week, he or she lost around two years of life. Those who drank more than 350 grams per week — the equivalent of drinking more than 17 glasses of wine every week — lost four to five years.
People who drank at or below the five-glass limit showed the lowest mortality risk across all groups.
David Spiegelhalter, a University of Cambridge professor who focuses on the public understanding of risk, estimated for The Guardian that, according to the study, each 8-gram unit of alcohol above the recommendation would shorten a 40-year-old's life expectancy by about 15 minutes. A standard glass of wine contains nearly two such units — so theoretically, you could lose 30 minutes per extra glass of wine.
The deaths investigated in the study were primarily caused by strokes, aneurysms, and heart problems — not cancer, as one might expect. Previous studies have linked alcohol consumption to the risks of certain cancers, but this study implies that there could be more to worry about.
Before you say no to that second glass of malbec, though, consider this: According to Philadelphia obesity medicine specialist Dr. Charles Seltzer, MD, we should take these results seriously, but with a grain of salt.
“This is an associative study,” Seltzer told The Daily Meal. “They’re associating alcohol with risks, not proving that drinking alcohol causes this stuff.”
Though the study correlates early death with increased drinking, other lifestyle factors could be at play.
“This study can easily be interpreted as saying that people who drink alcohol are going to be less healthy in general,” Seltzer suggested. “That makes sense. Someone who’s drinking a fifth of Jack every night is probably not going to be exercising a lot or watching what they eat.”
Seltzer noted that other analyses have shown people who drink excess amounts of alcohol are more likely to smoke cigarettes. It could be these factors influencing mortality risk — or it could be the booze. The scientists just don’t definitively know.
Additionally worth noting is that other studies have implied drinking alcohol can be beneficial to your health.
“A glass of a red wine has antioxidants and components that can improve blood vessel health, and therefore may be preventative against cardiac risk,” registered dietitian Courtney Ferreira told The Daily Meal. “Beer has antioxidants.”
Some studies show that drinking alcohol could flush toxins from your brain. Other scientists have shown that beer — caloric, carb-heavy, real beer — could help protect against insulin resistance, according to some animal studies.
“Too often, I hear clients say ‘drinking is good for me,’” Ferreira explained. “It is not so simple. These benefits can be positive complements to a healthy lifestyle, but will not make someone healthy.”
Seltzer agrees. “People will look at the literature that says alcohol is beneficial and use it as a license to drink more,” he said. “If someone looks at this study and it gets them to drink a little less, then that’s probably a good thing.”
Both Ferreira and Seltzer agree that above all else, it comes down to moderation.
“If there’s not any concern about alcoholism, then drink as it fits your lifestyle,” Seltzer said when asked what he would tell his patients. “Drink, just make sure that it’s part of your diet and you’re not shortchanging yourself on other nutrients. If you’re happy and healthy and drinking, then I probably don’t have a problem with it.”
“It can be helpful to consider, for one, ‘When do I turn to alcohol?’” suggested Ferreira. “Am I bored, stressed, being social? Is there another way I can deal with this situation?”
So you might not need to panic about indulging in a glass every now and then. After all, wine does have its health benefits — not to mention, it can taste pretty great, too.