Major study debunks myth that moderate drinking can be healthy

Henrietta Brewer
April 7, 2019

Europe has the highest per person alcohol consumption in the world, even though it has dropped by around 10 percent since 2010, the WHO says, and current trends point to a global rise in per capita consumption in the next 10 years.

Experts said people should limit their alcohol consumption.

After using genetic data from a smaller group of participants and taking into account where they lived to predict the amount of alcohol menwere consuming, researchers found no protective effect from moderate drinking. "The findings for heart attack were less clear-cut, so we plan to collect more evidence", said Zhengming Chen, a researcher at the University of Oxford and co-author.

Writing in the Lancet, researchers from the United Kingdom and China described how they examined the impact of alcohol on stroke using a type of natural experiment.

Scientists at Oxford university found that one or two drinks a day increased the risk of suffering a stroke in the next ten years by 10 to 15 per cent, and four drinks a day by 35 per cent.

"Drinking in the United Kingdom has been falling for more than a decade and most people drink within the new lower government guideline".

The female participants in the study drank less than men, with just 2% drinking most weeks.

The authors claimed that it would be impossible to do such a study in Western populations because very few people would have the relevant genetic variants.

"Stroke is a major cause of death and disability".

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland said, "This study is a welcome addition to the mounting evidence that drinking any amount of alcohol increases the risk of damage to health, and that the risk generally increases in line with how much you drink". Considering the risks, it concluded there is "no safe level of alcohol".

What do other experts say?

But he said the research reflected the culmination of many years of research into the impact of alcohol consumption.

The authors say this means previous signs of an increased risk of stroke at low alcohol consumption are not down to moderate drinking offering protection, but rather that there are differences between moderate and non-drinkers that muddy the waters - for example people already in poorer health might not drink.

Because the variants have specific and large effects on alcohol, but do not effect other lifestyle factors such as diet, smoking, economic status or education, they can be used by scientists to nail down causal effects of alcohol intake.

"It has certainly advanced what we know about the role of alcohol in some diseases but it can't be the last word", he said.

David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, and who was not involved in the study, said the new study was convincing. "This large collaborative study has shown that stroke rates are increased by alcohol. I have always been reasonably convinced that moderate alcohol consumption was protective for cardiovascular disease, but now I am having my doubts".

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