Comforted by regular headlines that moderate drinking is good for your health and will prolong your life?
A new study published in a leading medical journal suggests these claims are too good to be true.
While high alcohol consumption has been linked to more than 200 diseases and chronic conditions, some research has suggested that moderate consumption (1-2 drinks per day) may protect against heart disease and help prevent an early death.
But after examining some of the studies used to back these findings, British and Australian researchers say the results are likely to have been skewed by study design.
For example, they said most studies had been done in non-English countries and that control groups of “non-drinkers” may have included former (and potentially heavy) drinkers who are known to be at higher risk of health problems.
In a re-examination of the issue, researchers from University of Sydney and University College London looked at the association between alcohol consumption and death rates for different age groups.
They analysed health and mortality data from two samples of people in England, including 18,368 and 34,523 people. Participants were asked about their average weekly alcohol consumption and how much they drank during their heaviest drinking day of the week.
The results were then adjusted for a range of personal, socioeconomic and lifestyle factors, such as level of education, occupation and smoking status because some have been linked to higher rates of illness and death.
The study, published in the BMJ on Wednesday, found that when drinkers were compared to people who had never drunk alcohol before, there was “little to no” protective effect.
However, they did find that low alcohol consumption (less than 10 units of alcohol a week and no more than 4.5 units in one day) among women aged 65 and over, was associated with a lower risk of dying compared to people who did not drink at all. But the researchers said this may be the result of “selection bias” in the study.
They concluded that studies suggesting alcohol was protective were likely influenced by inappropriate selection of participants and weak statistical adjustment for confounders that would skew results.
Commenting on the study in the BMJ, Professor of Public Health Policy at Curtin University Mike Daube said the apparent benefits of alcohol were evaporating at a time when other studies were concluding that reducing alcohol intake, even for light to moderate drinkers, may be beneficial for heart health.
“In health, as elsewhere, if something looks too good to be true, it should be treated with great caution,” he wrote.
Professor Daube said the alcohol industry and its organisations which have spruiked these studies should remove misleading references to health benefits from their information materials.
Furthermore, he said governments around the world had been too unwilling to take on the “formidable economic power of the international alcohol industry” with policies such as taxation that would reduce harm.
“Reducing the massive health and social harms caused by alcohol will not prevent sensible use and enjoyment of alcohol,” he wrote.
“Globally, more than three million deaths each year are attributable to alcohol. The real mortality benefits will come from determined action at the political level, not outdated advice and wishful thinking.”