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  • New research suggests that people under 40 who consume unsafe amounts of alcohol may face elevated health risks and that even less than 1 drink per day may be harmful to health.
  • In 2020, 1.34 billion people across 204 countries consumed harmful amounts of alcohol, according to the study.
  • The findings indicate that current recommendations for alcohol consumption should be adjusted according to age rather than sex.
  • But for older adults over 40, drinking a small amount of alcohol may offer modest health benefits.

Everything in moderation — including alcohol? New research may suggest otherwise.

A July 2022 study published in The Lancet confirms that for people ages 15 to 39 years, there is no health benefit to drinking alcohol, only risks.

“While it may not be realistic to think young adults will abstain from drinking, we do think it’s important to communicate the latest evidence so that everyone can make informed decisions about their health,” Emmanuela Gakidou, MSc, PhD, a senior author of the study and professor of health metrics sciences for the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, said in a press release.

Researchers tracked estimates of alcohol use across 204 countries and found that 1.34 billion people consumed harmful quantities of alcohol in 2020 (the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic).

Data included the distribution of causes of disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) for each population along with alcohol consumption patterns from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study (GBD) 2020. Researchers then estimated the theoretical minimum risk exposure level (TMREL) and nondrinker equivalent (NDE) for each region, age group, sex, and year from 1990 to 2020.

The study findings indicate that for every region, males between 15 and 39 years old were the largest segment of the population drinking unsafe amounts of alcohol.

The researchers concluded that drinking alcohol doesn’t offer any health benefits, but does present considerable health risks, with 60% of alcohol-related injuries occurring among people in this age group, including suicides, murders, and motor vehicle accidents.

According to researchers, one standard drink is defined as 10 grams of pure alcohol, equivalent to:

  • a 3.4-ounce glass of red wine at 13% alcohol by volume
  • a 12-ounce serving of beer at 3.5% alcohol
  • 1 ounce of whiskey or other spirits at 40% alcohol

Study findings indicate the amount of alcohol people ages 15 to 39 can consume before risking their health was only 0.136 standard drinks per day, which is slightly more than one-tenth of a standard drink.

This is slightly higher for females in that age range, at 0.273 drinks or roughly one-quarter of a standard drink per day.

Researchers found that a small amount of alcohol for those over 40 could provide some health benefits for people without underlying health conditions.

“At the same time, small amounts of alcohol consumption are associated with improved health outcomes in populations that predominantly face a high burden of cardiovascular diseases, particularly older adults in many world regions,” the study authors wrote.

These benefits include a reduced risk of:

  • ischemic heart disease
  • stroke
  • diabetes

“Health risks of too much alcohol are many,” Moe Gelbart, PhD, Director, Behavioral Health at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in California, told Healthline.

Gelbart explained that depending on genetics, history, and motivation for over-drinking, there’s a risk of developing dependence, which comes with all the consequences of alcoholism — including the difficulty in stopping.

“Alcohol is a central nervous depressant,” he added. “And although used by some to cope with depression, actually is a causal factor.”

According to Gelbart, there are also a host of possible physical problems associated with alcohol use, including (but not limited to):

  • dementia
  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • liver issues
  • certain cancers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults of legal drinking age who choose to drink may do so in moderation, which is defined as 2 drinks a day or less for men and 1 drink per day or less for women on days when alcohol is consumed.

Researchers say that existing policy guidelines should be modified to focus on “optimal consumption levels” by age, rather than the current practice of recommending different levels by sex.

“Even if a conservative approach is taken and the lowest level of safe consumption is used to set policy recommendations,” said lead study author Dana Bryazka, a researcher at IHME, in a statement. “This implies that the recommended level of alcohol consumption is still too high for younger populations.”

Alcohol content vs. type of drink

“The issue is the amount of alcohol in a drink, and not the drink itself,” Gelbart emphasized. “6 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, and 1.5 ounces of vodka/gin/whiskey all have the same amount of alcohol in them.”

He pointed out that some people think it’s not a problem if they “just drink beer,” and others think they’re OK because they drink only fine wine.

“These are myths and forms of denial,” Gelbart added.

“According to the National Institutes of Health, a little more than half of adults drank in the past month,” said Dr. Rachel Bruce, interim chair of emergency medicine at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in Queens, New York.

Bruce said that roughly 30% of men and 22% of women engage in binge drinking, which is defined as 5 drinks for men or 4 drinks for women in a 2-hour period.

“Alcohol sales went up during the pandemic, as did reports of alcohol-related deaths,” Bruce said.

“For a long time, people have justified their alcohol use based on vague claims about health benefits,” Bruce said. “That’s no longer an option.”

She cautioned that, although enjoyable, drinking is not good for your health.

“We all do things that we know are bad for us, like eating fatty snacks or not getting enough sleep,” she continued. “If you enjoy drinking, do so in moderation, and be honest with yourself about the risks.”

“If you think drinking may be a problem for you or someone you care about, speak to a doctor, and get help,” Bruce advised.

According to new research, even moderate alcohol consumption offers no health benefits for people under 40. However, older people may experience some benefits, including reduced cardiovascular risk.

Experts say that folks under 40 who have more than 1 drink per day may face increased health risks like diabetes, stroke, and heart disease, suggesting the current recommendations for alcohol consumption should be adjusted to age rather than sex.

If you or a loved one is potentially drinking unsafe amounts of alcohol, you may wish to seek help and support.