drinking-wine
Alcohol Use

Moderate Drinking Might Not Be as Healthy as You Think

The benefits of light alcohol consumption, as well as the risks associated with not drinking at all, might not be as great as previously thought, according to new research.

Investigators from Penn State analyzed information about more than 9,000 people across England, Scotland and Wales born in 1958 who are participating in the longitudinal National Child Development Study. The study, based at the University College London Centre for Longitudinal Studies, tracked changes in people’s drinking and cigarette smoking habits from age 23 to 55, and linked these changes to mental and physical health.

About one third of men and women who reported drinking at the light-to-moderate level were very unlikely to smoke, according to a news release from Penn State. While this group of light drinkers and non-smokers enjoyed the best health and quality of life in middle age, three other groups experienced more health problems. These groups were those who drank lightly to moderately but also smoked; those who both drank more heavily and smoked; and those who refrained from drinking alcohol or reduced their drinking over time.

Light-to-moderate drinkers were defined as adults who consumed no more than 14 units of alcohol, which is equivalent to roughly six pints of beer or six medium-sized glasses of wine, per week. This is the current maximum recommended for men and women by the United Kingdom’s Department of Health, according to Jeremy Staff, professor of criminology and sociology at Penn State and the study’s lead author.

While the supposed benefits of moderate drinking have been widely reported in the media, many reports have failed to take into account other risk factors. For example, light-to-moderate drinkers suffered poor health in midlife if they were former smokers or still had the occasional cigarette. This may be due to a direct effect of smoking or because of other lifestyle-related risks, such as lack of exercise or obesity. Many midlife abstainers also began their adult life in poorer physical or mental health than peers who had completely abstained from alcohol.

“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,” Staff said in the news release. “Medical professionals and public health officials should be wary of drawing conclusions about the so-called ‘dangers’ of never drinking without more robust evidence.”

About one in five members of 55-year-olds who said they had never drunk alcohol in their lives had previously reported drinking when they were younger. This suggests that those who drink very little may tend to misremember or under-report previous drinking habits. When studies include this group as lifetime abstainers, apparent ‘harms’ of abstaining may be overestimated, said the researchers.