Study casts doubt on the benefits of light drinking

If you think your nightly glass of vino is doing good things for your health, think again.

A new study suggests that folks who like to tip back a drink or two every day are more likely to die prematurely.

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"At any given age, if you drink daily – even just one or two drinks – you have a 20% increased risk of death compared to someone who drinks the same amount two to three times a week," said study author Dr Sarah Hartz.

She's an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

"We should no longer say that it's healthy to drink. It's a vice that's not great for us," she added.

Increased risk of cancer

Hartz noted that how significant a 20% increased risk of death is depends on your age. She explained that since very few people die in their 20s, a 20% increased risk of premature death is less significant at that age than it would be for someone in their 70s.

The study was published online in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Although the study did find an association, it did not prove that light drinking caused early death risk to rise.

But how might alcohol boost that risk?

Hartz said most of the increased risk of early death comes from an increased risk of cancer. She said that people often underestimate how much drinking can increase the risk of some cancers, such as breast cancer. And drinking more than four times a week can also increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

New data

But what of all the studies that have suggested a health benefit from moderate drinking?

Hartz said that there have been several studies this year that have concluded that drinking generally isn't good for health. And the populations in these studies and the latest one are larger than in previous ones. More importantly, she noted, the newer studies have been able to parse out the lowest levels of drinking.

"We have access to data we haven't had access to before," Hartz explained.

The study included information from more than 400 000 people. More than 340 000 (aged 18 to 85) had participated in a national health survey. Another group of nearly 94 000 were between the ages of 40 and 60 and had been treated as outpatients at Veterans Health Administration clinics.

"The lowest risk group was people who drank one or two drinks just two to three times weekly," she said.

Still, not everyone is convinced that this study is the last word on alcohol and health.

More personalised medicine

According to Dr Guy Mintz, director of cardiovascular health and lipidology at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, "The jury is still out with regard to frequency and quantity of alcohol use."

Mintz said, "This is an interesting study. One to two drinks four days a week seemed to protect against cardiovascular disease, but drinking every day eliminated those benefits."

He pointed out that "one of the study's conclusions was that, as medicine becomes more personalised, some patients with a history of cardiovascular disease may benefit from drinking two or three days a week, but those with a higher risk of cancer may not benefit."

Mintz tells his patients to drink anything but beer because it has a lot of calories and salt, and can contribute to obesity and high triglycerides (an unhealthy type of blood fat). "I would stress alcohol consumption in moderation, both in frequency and quantity," he said.

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