The debate around whether any and all alcohol is bad for you, or if small amounts are good for your health, is a long standing one. Advocates for both perspectives remain vocal. A new study, a part of the Global Burden of Disease Study directed by the University of Washington, aims to put the debate to rest once and for all, thanks to the latest data and research.
The conclusion of this study, which is surprising, thought-provoking, and will no doubt be contentious, is this: there are no benefits to any amount of alcohol for young people under 40. And the safe limit – “before risking health” – for this age group, is a meagre 2 tablespoons of wine for women, and only two teaspoons of the same for men.
What Makes 2 Tablespoons of Wine Safe?
Most previous studies on the limit beyond which alcohol becomes detrimental to health, what quantities may have health benefits, and the amounts that are safe for men and women respectively, focus on the effects of alcohol on the body. The current study, too, looks at a wide range of potential dangers to health – 22 health outcomes in fact – such as cancers and cardiovascular diseases. It also takes into account the risk of accidents or injuries related to alcohol.
Currently in the UK, according to the NHS, a standard drink of alcohol is defined by units because of the different sizes of drinks and the strength of the alcohol. One unit is equal to 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol. This one unit is approximately the amount one adult can process in one hour and have little or no alcohol in their system at the end of that hour. It makes no distinction between men and women in this formula.
The NHS recommends that men and women are to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week. This would be equal to about 10 small glasses of wine or 6 pints of beer. As you can see, this amount is well beyond the recommended amount of alcohol consumption in the Global Burden of Disease Study.
Of equal interest is that these same dietary guidelines mention not drinking as another option. This is a sign of an attitude to alcohol that has grown increasingly cautious over the past two decades.
Similarly, the new study describes the limits it suggests not as safe, but as the “theoretical minimum risk exposure level” of alcohol consumption.
Young People at Greater Risk of Consuming Dangerous Amounts
The new study paints a bleak portrait of alcohol use. It estimates that 1.34 billion people, across more than 200 countries, consumed harmful amounts of alcohol in 2020. Well over half were in the 15 – 39 age group. A full three quarters of these young people were men.
Further, it found that around 60% of alcohol related injuries and fatalities occurred in this same age group. These incidents included road accidents, suicides, and even homicides. Not only that, alcohol is the primary risk factor for death in males aged 15 to 49.
No Health Benefits to People Under 40
Since the quantities this study considers low-risk are only a tiny fraction of a standard drink, it may seem surprising that there is still a discrepancy between the minimum and maximum tipple for men and women. UK national guidelines do not set a specific guideline of drinking just for women.
This is a question of statistics: since women are considerably less likely to drink to excess, they are also statistically less likely to damage their health, or cause injury to themselves or others. Nevertheless, we are still, literally, taking the proverbial ‘thimbleful of brandy’.
As if to put the final nail in the coffin of under forties’ drinking, the Global Burden of Disease Study concludes that there are no observable benefits of drinking any alcohol whatsoever in this age group. Dr. Emmanuela Gakidou, professor at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, emphatically concludes, “Our message is simple: young people should not drink.”
Is Alcohol Good for Anyone?
Received wisdom is generally that the older you get, the more you should be moderate in your drinking habits. A young person’s liver and other internal organs can handle processing alcohol better than the body of an older individual. This study, however, found that above a certain age, modest quantities of alcohol can have health benefits. People above 40 may reduce their risk of ailments such as diabetes, stroke, or cardiovascular disease, thanks to a small glass of wine daily. In fact, potential health benefits to older citizens increase slightly with age.
To Drink or Not to Drink – That is the Question
Regardless of possible benefits, this study does not refute the opinion, increasingly prevalent in recent years, that the safest level of alcohol use is none at all. Regardless of age or gender.
Across the world, important studies have concluded that alcohol consumption is not healthy. A survey by the European Society of Cardiology, on subjects aged over 40, found that, “alcohol may be more risky to the heart than previously thought.” It also concluded, in contrast with the Global Burden of Disease Study, that, “We did not observe any benefits of low alcohol usage.”
Alcohol has been used for millennia, and across the globe. It is an integral part of the history, culture, and lifestyle in innumerable countries. National alcoholic beverages are a source of pride – and profit – for each nation’s citizens. It is not going to disappear anytime soon.
Similarly, young people are unlikely to suddenly stop drinking or limit themselves to a safe tablespoonful or two. Alcohol is still too much of an acceptable and perfectly legal social lubricant to be cast aside easily. It is still considered by many, young or old, as an essential element in parties and celebrations.
However, this new study definitely gives us pause for thought. It radically slashes the amounts of alcohol health authorities previously thought low-risk. If young people can really only drink thimbleful at a time, they may have to drastically reduce their consumption.
Also read: Switch To The Heart Healthy Drink- Red Wine