A new study is the latest to suggest that modest alcohol consumption isn’t likely to provide any health benefits. The research, a review of existing studies, found no strong evidence that light to moderate drinking can reduce people’s risk of dying early. Past studies that did find a positive effect might have failed to account for the poorer health of former drinkers and other factors, the scientists say.
Chronic, heavy drinking has long been tied to health problems, from early dementia to liver cancer. At the same time, there’s been an ongoing debate over the health risks and possible benefits of less sustained drinking. Some studies have suggested that light to moderate drinking can protect against early death or heart disease, for instance. More recently, however, the consensus seems to be turning against that conclusion. A study last year found an increased risk of cardiovascular disease with all levels of alcohol consumption, for example. Another study that same month found a connection between even moderate drinking and shrinking brain volume.
The new research, published late last week in JAMA Network Open, was conducted by scientists in Canada and the UK. It’s an update to an earlier review by the same group published in 2016, and it looks at data from studies up through July 2021.
Overall, they reviewed over 100 studies that analyzed mortality risk and alcohol, which collectively involved nearly 5 million people. Notably, they also tried to adjust for factors that could have affected the results of previous studies. It’s known that many people who currently abstain from alcohol, for instance, have stopped drinking because they’re in poorer health or perhaps even because of their earlier drinking—a phenomenon called the “sick quitter effect.” Including these sick quitters in the same group as lifetime abstainers and then comparing them to light and moderate drinkers can bias the analysis in a way that makes alcohol seem healthier than it truly is.
As expected, heavier drinking (more than three drinks a day on average) was linked to a noticeably higher risk of dying earlier. But in the team’s adjusted model, there was no statistically significant effect on mortality—either good or bad—linked to light or moderate drinking. Women also appeared to generally be worse off, since their higher risk of dying began at lower levels of alcohol consumption than it did for men.
“This updated meta-analysis did not find significantly reduced risk of all-cause mortality associated with low-volume alcohol consumption after adjusting for potential confounding effects of influential study characteristics,” the review authors wrote. They also argue that occasional drinkers should be used as the baseline comparison group for future alcohol-related studies from now on, given how hard it can be to account for the sick quitter effect and other biases.
This study and others still show that heavy drinking poses a much higher risk of problems compared to light/moderate drinking. And there seems to be conflicting evidence on whether regular light drinking is bad for you in any major way. But at the very least, these new findings indicate there’s really no such thing as drinking for your health.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of real harm that can come from our collective drinking habit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that alcohol is to blame for one in every eight deaths of Americans between the ages of 20 to 65 annually, or nearly 90,000 deaths a year. Other research has found that one in five Americans gets hurt by another person’s drinking every year.