New Global Study Finds No Amount of Alcohol is Safe for Under 40s


A groundbreaking study analysing the effects of alcohol on a global level has found that there are no health benefits and significant dangers from drinking alcohol for people under 40, while older adults may benefit from drinking small amounts.

Alcohol is one of the biggest causes of death in the UK. In 2020, there were 8,974 deaths related to alcohol-related causes. Moreover, an estimated 602,391 people require treatment for alcohol dependency.

The largest study of its kind was published as part of the ‘Global Burden of Disease’ study, an ongoing project that produces the most extensive data on health and disease in the world.

The study analysed alcohol risk according to geographical region, age, sex, and year. They propose that alcohol recommendations should not be fixed but vary according to an individual’s age and location. They propose strict guidelines for men aged 15-39, the group most likely to harmfully consume alcohol across the globe.

Despite these nuances, there are some clear conclusions. Alcohol is more damaging to young people than older adults. While young people do not benefit from drinking at all, older people without underlying health conditions who drink a limited amount of alcohol – such as a glass of wine each day – may have a reduced risk of developing conditions like cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes.

The researchers estimated the maximum amount of alcohol each group of people could drink before it negatively affected their health. They found that:

  • For men aged 15-39, the threshold for ‘risk of health loss’ was only 0.136 of a standard drink per day
  • For women aged 15-39, the threshold was 0.273 of a standard drink (about a quarter)
  • For adults over 40 without underlying health conditions, safe drinking levels varied from about half a standard drink a day to just under two standard drinks.
  • For adults over 65, the threshold was reached at just over three standard drinks a day
  • The average recommended alcohol intake for adults over 40 was 1.87 drinks a day

There are many long-term health risks associated with alcohol consumption. Alcohol is a toxic consumption, and drinking at any level increases the risk of health loss from various diseases, including liver cirrhosis, breast cancer, and tuberculosis.

The more someone drinks, the greater the health risk. Long-term alcohol misuse damages several vital organs, including the brain, central nervous system, heart, liver, and pancreas. Heavy drinking may increase your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, making heart attacks and strokes more likely, as well as weakening your immune system over time.

As well as affecting physical health, drinking also increases the chances of injury. Alcohol inhibits an individual’s self-control, making it more likely they will engage in risky behaviour, including drink driving. It may also make a person act more violently and become involved in fights with others.

Previous studies analysing the effects of alcohol on health have produced varied results. While some studies showed evidence of a J-shaped relationship between alcohol and mortality, where small amounts of alcohol may benefit the health but large amounts damage it, other studies report that the optimum alcohol consumption is zero. Such contradictory results have meant that alcohol consumption is a controversial topic requiring further study, updating the database as more evidence becomes available.

The present study is significant not only in the size of its database but in its inclusion of the implications of background levels of disease when assessing the levels of alcohol consumption that minimise health loss. Their results, while consistent with previous findings at a global level, offer a new level of nuance. While they find clear evidence that the optimum level of alcohol consumption is zero or close to zero for many age groups and regions, it is not true for all groups – especially older adults in regions that predominantly face cardiovascular diseases.

The study found that the distribution of alcohol-related diseases varied across regions. In the Middle East and North Africa, 30.7% of alcohol-related disability-adjusted life years (years lost due to ill health, disability, or early death) in the 55-59 age group resulted from cardiovascular disease, 12.6% from cancer, and 0.37% from tuberculosis. On the other hand, in central sub-Saharan Africa, the same age group saw 20.1% of alcohol-related disability-adjusted life years from cardiovascular disease, 9.8% from cancers, and 10.1% from tuberculosis.

The authors argue that these regional variations require different recommended limits. Their recommendations for the age group in North Africa and the Middle East are 0.876, compared to 0.596 in central sub-Saharan Africa. 

Moreover, the study found that the current moderate drinking guidelines for young people are too high across all regions. While the guidelines may be suitable for older people, they give young people a false sense of security and may encourage drinking at potentially harmful levels. The authors argue that there is a particular need for targeted interventions for these groups, which constitute the largest proportion of alcohol-related harm.

The authors admit that it is unrealistic to think that young people will stop drinking – but it remains important to ensure that accurate information is shared and available widely. On this basis, people will be able to make clear and informed choices regarding their drinking habits, and hopefully begin to drink at more healthy levels.

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