You don’t have to go far to find people, including doctors and researchers, who will argue that a little bit of alcohol can actually help you live a longer, healthier life. But an enormous new study published this week in The Lancet seems poised to rip that idea to shreds.
Its findings not only reaffirm that alcohol is one of the biggest killers globally, but they also show there’s no such thing as a completely safe alcoholic beverage.
Scientists at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independently-run research program based at the University of Washington in Seattle, conducted a giant meta-analysis, intended as part of the program’s annual Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report.
“One of our mottos is: We need to get all the evidence out on the table,” lead author Max Griswold told Gizmodo. “And that’s something that really hasn’t been done for alcohol before.”
Griswold and his team looked at nearly 600 published studies involving 28 million people that examined how alcohol affects our health. They also analysed nearly 700 sources of data on how often people in 195 countries drink regularly, ranging from 1990 to 2016.
Their major finding, according to Griswold, is simple, if depressing for bar-goers.
“We found that there isn’t really any benefit of drinking to your health,” he said. “And that the safest level, from a health perspective, is not drinking at all.”
That might seem like a completely obvious point to make. But there’s no shortage of research suggesting that low-to-moderate drinking is associated with some health benefits, mainly revolving around the heart.
One of the major problems with these studies, Griswold explains, is that many failed to account for subtle biases in who they were exactly studying. Essentially, it’s hard to study non-drinkers in isolation, because some people who say they don’t drink currently may have actually been formerly heavy drinkers. And since they often quit alcohol because of their failing health, labelling them as non-drinkers only make current drinkers look healthier in comparison.
Research that has tried to control for sick quitters, including the current study, had found much less evidence of heart health benefits.
For instance, while there was a slightly lowered risk of heart disease in light drinkers, the same wasn’t true of other cardiovascular conditions, such as hemorrhagic stroke, high blood pressure and irregular heartbeats. “So it was a much muddier picture when it comes to heart health, regardless,” Griswold said.
Even if alcohol had some tiny positive effect on the heart, it wouldn’t come close to balancing the mountain of health risks any amount of regular alcohol use causes elsewhere, such as car accidents and cancer. “Anywhere alcohol touches the body is a potential site for cancer later on in your life,” Griswold bleakly points out.
Above all, the report is meant to be a much-needed reminder of alcohol’s harms. Some countries, such as Denmark, have started to relax their alcohol taxation laws, which reliably discourage consumption, while others such as the US are eyeing similar changes.
And health agencies across the world often still tell their citizens that drinking up to two drinks daily is safe. That same level of drinking, the report concluded, raises your risk of dying early by much as seven per cent compared to not drinking at all.
“That’s hundreds of thousands of extra deaths globally,” Griswold said.
Worldwide, the report found, alcohol was the major cause of nearly three million deaths in 2016, making it the seventh leading risk factor that year. These deaths were especially pronounced in men, with alcohol being linked to 12 per cent of all deaths among men between the ages of 15 to 49. The National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University found that nearly 6000 Australians died from illnesses attributable to alcohol in 2015.
While these numbers might harsh our collective buzz, Griswold said that’s the point.
“People are probably drinking more than they realise, and it’s harming our health,” he said, referencing research that shows we’re terrible at estimating our alcoholic beverage count. “We could all serve to drink a little bit less. And it would save lives.”
According to DrinkWise, 80 per cent of Australians do not abstain from alcohol, and 16 per cent usually have five or more standard drinks.