A study part-funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and published in the Lancet medical journal appears to contradict the widely held belief that moderate drinking is beneficial to cardiovascular health.
The authors say their findings show that drinking more alcohol is associated with a higher risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm, heart failure and death.
The study compared the health and drinking habits of around 600,000 current drinkers in 19 countries worldwide and controlled for age, smoking, history of diabetes, level of education and occupation.
The upper safe limit of drinking was about 5 drinks per week (100g of pure alcohol, 12.5 units or just over five pints of 4 per cent ABV2 beer). However, drinking above this limit was linked with lower life expectancy. For example, having 10 or more drinks per week was linked with 1-2 years shorter life expectancy.
Having 18 drinks or more per week was linked with 4-5 years shorter life expectancy.
The research supports the UK’s recently lowered guidelines, which since 2016 recommend both men and women should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol each week. This equates to around six pints of beer or six glasses of wine a week.
However, the worldwide study carries implications for countries across the world, where alcohol guidelines vary substantially. The researchers also looked at the association between alcohol consumption and different types of cardiovascular disease.
Alcohol consumption was associated with a higher risk of stroke, heart failure, fatal aortic aneurysms, fatal hypertensive disease and heart failure and there were no clear thresholds where drinking less did not have a benefit.
By contrast, alcohol consumption was associated with a slightly lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks.
The authors note that the different relationships between alcohol intake and various types of cardiovascular disease may relate to alcohol’s elevating effects on blood pressure and on factors related to elevated high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) (also known as good cholesterol).
They stress that the lower risk of non-fatal heart attack must be considered in the context of the increased risk of several other serious and often fatal cardiovascular diseases.
Alison Douglas, Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland said: “This study reinforces the importance of the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines on lower risk drinking updated in 2016. People have the right to know how alcohol consumption affects their health so they can make informed choices about their drinking. Alcohol causes more than 60 different health problems including the cardiovascular diseases covered by this study. But with 1 in 4 Scots continuing to drink at harmful or hazardous levels, it is clear that this information is not hitting home.”