Moderate alcohol consumption is not the health boon many may have been led to believe.
In fact, a new study of consumption from 12 countries found that ongoing drinking could significantly increase the risk of cancer.
The international study of 115,000 people — ages 35-70, and from high-, middle- and low-income countries — found that with continued drinking over several years, cancer risk rose by 51 percent, with heavy drinking increasing the risk of death by 31 percent, according to the research published in the British medical journal Lancet.
“Certainly two to three alcoholic beverages a day have no added health benefit, and clearly have health risks in terms of cancer and overall mortality, plus, of course, the potential for addiction,” said Dr. William Grossman, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, of the study’s findings.
Previous studies on alcohol consumption — of red wine, in particular — have suggested that small quantities offer some health benefits. But Grossman, who serves as director of UCSF’s Center for Prevention of Heart and Vascular Disease, noted those benefits came from limited drinking.
“Certainly two to three alcoholic beverages a day have no added health benefit, and clearly have health risks in terms of cancer and overall mortality.”
“This study is consistent with data from many previous studies related to a modest health benefit regarding heart disease for alcohol consumption of one drink a day for women, or no more than two drinks a day for men — the difference being because of the general different body size — and it extends this to confirm what many of us have believed concerning the dangers of alcohol in excess of these amounts,” Grossman said.
The research, led by Dr. Andrew Smyth and a Canadian team from the Population Health Research Institute, is different, its authors noted.
“Alcohol consumption is proposed to be the third most important modifiable risk factor for death and disability. However, alcohol consumption has been associated with both benefits and harms, and previous studies were mostly done in high-income countries,” they wrote in their summary. “We investigated associations between alcohol consumption and outcomes in a prospective cohort of countries at different economic levels in five continents.”
Smyth called for an increase in global awareness of the dangers of overconsumption.
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High-income countries participating in the study were Canada and Sweden, while upper middle-income nations were Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Poland, South Africa and Turkey. Those lower-middle-income countries were China and Colombia, while the two lower-income nations studied were India and Zimbabwe.
“Because alcohol consumption is increasing in many countries, especially in low-income countries and middle-income countries, the importance of alcohol as a risk factor for disease might be underestimated,” noted the study’s co-author Salim Yusuf of McMaster University Medical School, who serves as president of the World Heart Federation.
Those who consumed liquor had a higher risk of death related to their drinking as well as risk of cancer, stroke and injury over those who simply drank beer or wine.
The study found that those who consumed liquor had a higher risk of death related to their drinking as well as risk of cancer, stroke and injury over those who simply drank beer or wine.
Those who favored wine also had the lowest heart disease risk and heart attack risk over those who did not drink at all, the study confirmed. But the authors cautioned that the reasons behind why some had higher risks than their counterparts from other countries could be attributed to different factors.
Michael Levin, 57, a recovering alcoholic who runs marathons and triathlons, said not drinking changed his perspective on life. He has a family history of drinking and followed siblings who had stopped before him to his own sobriety.
“I would describe myself as an antisocial drinker. Occasionally a blackout drinker,” he said of his past. “I come from a long line of alcoholics in my family. I saw my sisters, and their lives got better, and I decided I wanted to be like them.”
He got sober before the damage was done.
“At that point I hadn’t done enough drinking to damage my health, but because I was no longer putting a depressant in my system, I no longer had the mood swings and the depression I had experienced from the years I had been drinking. I leveled off emotionally.”
He said he doesn’t want to be a “kill-joy” for others who enjoy imbibing.
“People who drink rely on studies that say a glass of wine is good for you, and they use that as an excuse for drinking, and it’s absurd. If you are an alcoholic, you cannot drink in safety, anytime, anywhere. It’s that simple,” Levin said.
Now running the Boston and New York marathons, where he acts as a Manhattan running guide for disabled athletes, Levin said he is resolute about the value of sobriety. He also cautions about what alcohol does to health.
“I’m saying that when you get drunk, it’s called being intoxicated. The word intoxicated comes from toxic. What’s good about that?” he said.
He is philosophical about the latest research, noting that “it’s just one study” in a body of research.
“I’m not advocating teetotaling. But in our society most people make choices with regard to alcohol, food consumption, exercise and rest in a way that is not good for their health. It’s not just whether people drink. It’s whether they are taking care of themselves at all.”