It’s Time to Rethink Alcohol

You’ve probably seen the ads advising parents to “think again” before giving teenagers alcohol, and pregnant women have also been told to lay off the booze, but could your alcohol consumption be doing you harm?

When discussing nutrition in my brain health workshops, the most common question everyone wants to know is,

“Can I still enjoy my glass of wine at night?”

Scientists have been debating the “what’s the safe limit for alcohol?” question for a while with difficulty being compounded by different countries having different recommendations, which has added to the confusion.

A new report published in the Lancet looked at data from 787,000 people from 83 different studies and confirmed that drinking more than 5-6 glasses of wine per week is associated with a shorter lifespan, and that drinking beer or spirits, or being a binge- drinkers confers a greater risk.

This amount of wine is equivalent to 100g or 12.5 units of alcohol. Drinking beyond this increases your risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm, heart failure and death.

The study failed to find any significant benefits conferred by moderate drinking.

They found that drinking between 200 and 350g alcohol per week is associated with a reduced life expectancy of 1-2 years, rising to 4-5 years for those consuming more than 350g of alcohol per week.

What does this mean?

The key message is drinking too much shortens lives.

Importantly this study also did not find any significant difference between men and women in relation to the amount of alcohol consumed and reduction in life expectancy meaning it is probably a fallacy to continue to believe that men can drink more safely, than women.

The implication is as with other aspects of lifestyle choice it’s up to us to decide what we do.

In the same vein as knowing that eating processed meat is bad for us, enjoying the occasional bacon and eggs for breakfast isn’t going to cause us undue harm. It’s what we do consistently that counts.

Does this mean we have to abandon alcohol?

No.

I can hear your sigh of relief. However, it may be time to review how much you do drink over the course of the week and to adhere to that good intention of including some alcohol-free nights.

Cambridge Professor David Spiegelhalter co-author of The Norm Chronicles examines how life’s chronic risks such as smoking or heavy drinking impact our life expectancy using something called the Microlife.

My understanding of this concept is that an adult life can be thought of as one million equal parts or micro lives. Each of these comprise thirty minutes, so each day we have 48. If we choose to engage in those activities known to be associated with poorer health outcomes, it means we chew through those micro lives more quickly.

In relation to the alcohol study when the tabloids say that drinking an extra glass of wine will shorten your life by 30 minutes, we need to put this into context!

The overall message is that less is more and that lowering consumption, especially if you’re a baby boomer (because the BB’s have developed a bit of a reputation for exceeding the recommended limits,) is not a bad idea.

The relationship of alcohol and the risk of dementia

This is real.

It’s also the BIGGEST modifiable risk factor we have available to us to reduce our relative risk.

A retrospective analysis of 30 million people in France between 2008 and 2013 revealed how a history of alcohol use disorders increases the risk of dementia by x3  and half of all those diagnosed with early onset dementia had a history of alcohol problems.

Ethanol and its metabolite acetaldehyde have a direct neurotoxic effect. Accompanying nutritional problems including thiamine deficiency are other contributing factors.

Current alcohol recommendations for Australians are 14 standard drinks per week, that’s nine glasses of wine or 7 pints of beer. It’s looking as if that will shortly be downgraded to one and a half bottles of wine, a six-pack of beer or half a bottle of spirits per week.

Moderation rules. I’ll drink to that.