Drinking at levels deemed ‘safe’ could be killing you

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  Last updated April 16, 2018 at 1:38 pm


Drinking more than 10 standard drinks a week, just six beers or glasses of wine, could lead to an early death, researchers say.

Credit: iStock

A global study of alcohol consumption this week casts doubt on current Australian health guidelines that recommend a maximum of 14 drinks a week as the ‘safe’ level of drinking.

The research combined data stretching back to 1964, including nearly 600,000 drinkers from 19 countries, 11,000 of whom were Australians.

“Increased mortality risk started at around 100 grams of alcohol weekly (10 Australian standard drinks) in men and women,” Orygen’s Dr Gillinder Bedi told the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC). “This is lower than the upper limit of low-risk drinking in current Australian guidelines (up to two standard drinks daily, or a maximum of 140 grams of alcohol per week).”

The findings suggest a 40-year-old drinking between ten and twenty drinks every week can expect to shave six months off their life expectancy, and as drinking increases, life expectancy decreases.

Hitting the bottle

“Overall, for a 40-year-old man, the estimated reduction in life expectancy is nearly five years for alcohol consumption of more than 350g per week, for a 40-year-old woman it is around four years, compared to consumption of less than 100g per week,” study author Professor Bu Yeap from the University of Western Australia told the Centre.

“Even modest quantities of alcohol increase the risk of earlier death,” said Emeritus Professor Jake Najman from the Queensland Alcohol and Drug Research and Education Centre at the University of Queensland. “The data make it even clearer that the alcohol industry is promoting a misleading view that alcohol use is benign.”

So, how certain can we be that hitting the bottle is killing us?

“The study remains observational,” said Dr Bedi, meaning it cannot show that alcohol actually causes the recorded reductions in life expectancy.

And the University of Sydney’s Associate Professor David Sullivan pointed out to the AusSMC that the work relies on people reporting how much they drank themselves, a notoriously unreliable method of collecting data, and didn’t include any information about cancer and liver disease, both of which are linked to alcohol consumption.

Cautionary advice

Monash University’s Emeritus Professor Mark Wahlqvist expressed surprise that the study found similar effects in both men and women, highlighting a lack of information about pregnancy, fetal alcohol syndrome and breast cancer.

“More cautionary advice for women, and especially when pregnancy is possible, is required than the proposed threshold would suggest,” he said.

However, Director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at UNSW, Professor Michael Farrell, described the work as “a landmark study”.

“This would be a suitable time for current Australian guidelines on alcohol consumption to be reviewed so that this new information can be considered,” said Prof Yeap.

In a statement provided to the AusSMC, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which issues Australia’s alcohol guidelines, said: “The NHMRC is reviewing the Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol 2009…Until then, the 2009 Alcohol Guidelines remain NHMRC’s current advice.”

About the Author

Joseph Milton
Joe Milton is an evolutionary biologist who, after studying the evolution of plants for ten years at various Scottish universities, made a move into journalism. Since then he has written for the Financial Times, Nature and New Scientist, among others. Joe joined the London Science Media Centre in 2010, where he was Senior Press Officer for Mental Health, before taking up the position of Senior Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre in July 2012.