Drinking the Recommended Amount of Alcohol May Still Shorten Your Life

alcohol, bar
(Image credit: cdrin/Shutterstock)

U.S. drinking guidelines are too boozy, according to a new study.

The research, which analyzed data from nearly 600,000 people in 19 countries, found that drinking more than 100 grams of pure alcohol per week (the equivalent of about seven standard drinks in the United States) was linked to an increased risk of early death during the study period.

But many countries have drinking guidelines that consider 100 grams of alcohol a week to be well within the range of "safe" drinking. For example, U.S. guidelines recommend that men drink no more than 196 grams per week, or 14 standard drinks. (For women, U.S. guidelines fall within these recommended amounts, at no more than 98 grams a week.) In Canada, guidelines recommend no more than 136 grams per week for women, and no more than 204 grams per week for men.

In the new study, published yesterday (April 12) in the journal The Lancet, researchers concluded that drinking guidelines should be lowered to a limit of 100 grams a week.  [Here's How Much Alcohol Is OK to Drink in 19 Countries]

"This study has shown that drinking alcohol at levels which were believed to be safe is actually linked with lower life expectancy," as well as other health problems, study co-author Dr. Dan G. Blazer II, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Duke University, said in a statement. The study's findings are in line with new recommendations for safe drinking in the United Kingdom, which recommend no more than six standard U.K. drinks a week for men and women.

Researchers have previously found that drinking guidelines vary widely around the world. For that reason, it's a little unclear exactly how much alcohol is "safe" to drink; in other words, it's hard to tell what level is associated with a low risk of health problems and substance disorders.

For the new study, the researchers analyzed information from 599,912 people in high-income countries who drank alcohol but did not have heart disease at the study's start. The median follow-up period was 7.5 years.

About half the people in the study reported drinking more than 100 grams of alcohol per week, and 8 percent drank more than 350 grams per week.

Drinking more than 100 grams of alcohol per week was linked with a lower life expectancy. For example, life expectancy was 6 months lower among those who drank 100 to 200 grams per week, and life expectancy was 1 to 2 years lower among those who drank 200 to 300 grams per week, compared with those who drank less than 100 grams a week. The highest level of drinking in the study — more than 350 grams per week — was linked with a 4- to 5-year reduction in life expectancy.

The study also found that alcohol consumption was linked with an increased risk of stroke or heart failure, as well as an increased risk of death from hypertensive disease (high blood pressure) or an aortic aneurysm. There was no clear threshold below which alcohol consumption stopped being associated with these conditions, the researchers said.

In contrast to those findings, alcohol consumption was also linked with a slightly lower risk of nonfatal heart attack. This slightly lower risk of heart attack tied to alcohol consumption must be balanced against the other "serious, and potentially fatal, cardiovascular diseases" linked with alcohol consumption, lead study author Dr. Angela Wood, a lecturer in biostatistics at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, said in the statement.

Overall, the public health message of the study is "if you already drink alcohol, drinking less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditions," Wood said.

The researchers noted that the study tracked people's alcohol consumption for at least a year but did not examine the effect of alcohol consumption over a person's entire lifetime. They also noted that the study was not able to account for people who reduced their alcohol consumption due to health complications.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.