A study that went viral last week concluded there’s no safe amount of alcohol, leading some people to question whether they should continue to enjoy a beer after work.
But don’t purge your liquor cabinet just yet.
Some experts say the research was taken out of context and maintain that moderate drinking may still have health benefits.
The report, which was published in The Lancet, was a meta-analysis of nearly 700 data sources that looked at alcohol consumption in 195 countries from 1990 to 2016.
The research analyzed how alcohol affected the risk of 23 health outcomes, such as heart disease, cancer, car accidents, injuries, and noncommunicable diseases.
The study authors concluded that alcohol is one of the leading risk factors for death and disability, noting it’s responsible for nearly 3 million deaths around the world in 2016.
They concluded that no amount of alcohol is safe to drink.
To drink or not to drink
The recommendation sounds serious. Does it mean everybody should stop drinking altogether?
“This study was much needed to try to push along evidence that we already have [about the risks of alcohol use],” said Dr. Kim Templeton, a professor of orthopedic surgery and health policy and management at the University of Kansas Health System. “But we need to be very careful in how we interpret and analyze population-based data. The conclusion reached that the optimal level of alcohol consumption is zero is based on population data, but it’s hard to extrapolate that to a given patient.”
Templeton told Healthline that a variety of factors, such as age, family history, and overall heath, contribute to someone’s risk of danger from alcohol.
While alcohol can be harmful to some people, it may actually provide protective benefits for others.
A recent study published in Circulation, the journal from the American Heart Association, found that moderate drinking (defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one drink per day for women and two for men) could prolong your life.
In another report from Circulation, researchers stated that there are more than 60 prospective studies showing that light to moderate alcohol consumption reduces the likelihood of heart disease — the leading cause of death in the United States.
“Don’t start drinking just to decrease your cardiovascular risk, but if you’re an older woman with risk factors for cardiovascular disease, the occasional drink you have might reduce that risk,” Templeton said.
It may also be problematic to consider global data when making health recommendations for a specific country.
Global data interpretation
For example, the Lancet study considered the effect of alcohol use on the risk of developing tuberculosis when making its recommendation that people should shun alcohol.
However, there were only 9,272 reported cases of tuberculosis in the United States in 2016.
While cutting alcohol may offer some reduction in the 2.79 million annual cases of tuberculosis in India, it’s unlikely it’d have a major effect in countries with a low rate of the disease.
“We don’t have to worry about tuberculosis in the U.S. We have to be very careful when we start taking data from around the world and generalizing it to the patient population of each country,” said Dr. Tiffany Sizemore, a board-certified cardiologist and medical advisor to the Distilled Spirits Council.
“According to the study, Italy has around the same prevalence of drinking as the United States,” Sizemore said, “but the life expectancy in Italy is one of the highest in the world. We should be asking what are these countries doing right, not what are we doing wrong.”
Heavy alcohol use still a problem
The headlines that resulted from the Lancet study recommendations may have grabbed attention, but no one is arguing that anything more than moderate drinking is a healthy behavior.
Around one-third of the general adult U.S. population admitted to binge drinking and heavy alcohol use in the past month, according to a 2015 report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Just about anyone who’s gone out to a bar with friends can attest to how quickly one or two drinks can become more.
The Lancet report serves as a good reminder to be more aware of the risks of heavy drinking.
“I’m not going to say we should stop drinking altogether, although that is the suggestion from the study. But we need to be more thoughtful about when we drink and how much we drink, and understand that there are health risks every time we drink,” said Dr. Alexis Halpern, an emergency medicine physician at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Halpern, Templeton, and Sizemore agree that the best way to assess your risk of health problems from drinking is to speak with your doctor, who will take into account your lifestyle, family health history, and other factors in providing guidance.
As for the Lancet study, it’s a useful tool for policymakers and public health officials, but it just doesn’t provide specific enough data to make recommendations on the individual level, experts say.
“We should encourage a healthy lifestyle and well-being without scare tactics that promote unrealistic recommendations. The take-home message is that almost everything is fine in moderation,” Sizemore said.