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Benefits of Alcohol Consumption May be Exaggerated

Light alcohol consumption may be less beneficial than previously thought.
Published Online: Jun 15,2017
Laurie Toich, Assistant Editor
It has been well-established that overconsumption of alcohol can result in numerous health problems, but the link between light drinking and health has been ill defined.
 
While previous studies have shown a potential benefit to light alcohol consumption, findings from a new study published by the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs suggest that this benefit may be overstated.
 
Included in the study were data from more than 9000 individuals born in 1958 who participated in the National Child Development Study. The authors followed patients’ drinking and smoking habits from age 23 to 55 and linked them to mental and physical health.
 
The authors defined light-to-moderate drinking as the intake of 14 units of alcohol or less. This is equivalent to 6 pints of beer or 6 medium-sized glasses of wine per week. This is the current alcohol consumption recommended by the UK's Department of Health.
 
Approximately one-third of participants who reported light-to-moderate alcohol consumption were unlikely to smoke. Patients who drank lightly and did not smoke had the best health overall, while other patients experienced health problems, according to the study.
 
Patients who drank lightly and smoked, drank heavily and smoked, and those who did not drink were likely to have health problems.
 
Although there have been various reports suggesting the benefits of alcohol consumption, there have been little to no other risk factors taken into account.
 
The authors report that light-to-moderate drinkers were more likely to have poor health in midlife if they had smoked during their life. This finding could be related to smoking or other factors related to lifestyle.
 
Additionally, patients who abstained from alcohol in midlife were more likely to have poor physical or mental health compared with peers who always abstained, according to the study.
 
"Alcohol abstainers are a diverse group. They include former heavy drinkers who quit due to problems with alcohol, as well as those who quit drinking due to poor health, and not just lifetime abstainers," said lead study author Jeremy Staff, PhD. "Medical professionals and public health officials should be wary of drawing conclusions about the so-called 'dangers' of never drinking without more robust evidence."
 
The authors discovered that 1 in 5 patients who said they abstained from drinking previously indicated they drank when they were younger. This suggests that patients who drink infrequently may underreport drinking habits. As such, classifying this group with lifetime abstainers may result in inaccurate data, according to the study.
 
The authors also found that patients with low levels of education did not drink or drank modestly, despite a previously suggested link between moderate drinking and higher education.
 
However, patients with high educational qualifications at age 23 were likely to drink moderately throughout their lives and not smoke compared with other patients, according to the study.
 
"Evidence continues to grow that alcohol has many health risks, including for cancer,” said study author Jennifer Maggs, PhD. “Therefore, it is dangerous to report only benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. Drinking habits are also shaped by our education, health earlier in life, and related lifestyle factors including smoking. These other influences may be the real factors underlying the connection between drinking and midlife health."