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Drinking more than UK alcohol guidelines 'will take years off your life', say Cambridge researchers

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Drinking more than the recommended limit will shorten your life, say researchers
Drinking more than the recommended limit will shorten your life, say researchers

Findings challenge the idea that moderate consumption is good for your heart

Dr Angela Wood, Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, University of Cambridge
Dr Angela Wood, Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, University of Cambridge

If you still think a couple of glasses of red wine each night will keep your heart healthy, think again.

University of Cambridge research has concluded that regularly drinking more than the recommended UK guidelines for alcohol could take years off your life. Drinking too much is associated with a higher risk of stroke, fatal aortic aneurysm, fatal hypertensive disease and heart failure, the study found.

The research, part funded by the British Heart Foundation, compared the health and drinking habits of more than 600,000 people in 19 countries and was controlled for age, smoking, history of diabetes, level of education and occupation.

Lower life expectancy was associated with those who consumed more than five drinks per week – 100g of pure alcohol or 12.5 units. This is just over five pints of 4% ABV beer or five 175ml glasses of 13% ABV wine.

Those who have 10 or more alcoholic drinks per week can expect their life to be shortened by one or two years, while 18 drinks or more per week shortened life expectancy by four or five years.

The authors say their findings challenge the belief that moderate drinking is beneficial to cardiovascular health.

They also support the UK’s recently lowered guidelines. In 2016, the government recommended that men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol each week – the equivalent of about six pints of normal strength beer or six glasses of wine a week.

The study, published in the Lancet, points out that Spain, where the upper recommended limit for men is a whopping 35 units, along with the US, Portugal and Italy have guidelines well above the threshold suggested.

The authors found those drinking alcohol had a slightly lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks – but warned that this should be kept in context.

Lead author Dr Angela Wood, from the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge’s School of Clinical Medicine, said: “If you already drink alcohol, drinking less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditions.

“Alcohol consumption is associated with a slightly lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks but this must be balanced against the higher risk associated with other serious – and potentially fatal – cardiovascular diseases.”

Victoria Taylor, senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation, said: “This powerful study may make sobering reading for countries that have set their recommendations at higher levels than the UK, but this does seem to broadly reinforce government guidelines for the UK. This doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels. Many people in the UK regularly drink over what’s recommended. We should always remember that alcohol guidelines should act as a limit, not a target, and try to drink well below this threshold.”

Commenting on the study, Prof David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, compared the risk to smoking.

He said: “This is a massive and very impressive study. It estimates that, compared to those who only drink a little, people who drink at the current UK guidelines suffer no overall harm in terms of death rates, and have 20 per cent fewer heart attacks.

“But above two units a day the death rates steadily climb. Each unit above guidelines is taking on average about 15 minutes of life, about the same as a cigarette. Of course it’s up to individuals whether they think this is worthwhile.”

On this basis, an extra glass of wine each day beyond the UK recommended alcohol guidelines costs you about half an hour of life.

The study relied on self-reported alcohol consumption.

It follows research earlier this year from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, which found alcohol causes permanent DNA damage – increasing your cancer risk.

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