Alcohol never healthy for under 40s but older people ‘may benefit from small amounts’, study finds

Researchers have called for stronger guidance to warn young adults of the health dangers posed by drinking

Watch more of our videos on Shots!
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

The amount of alcohol that can pose a health risk to young people is substantially lower than first thought, new research suggests.

A safe daily limit for men under the age of 40 is just one small shot glass of beer per day, while for women aged 39 and under it is the equivalent of two tablespoons of wine, or 100ml of beer, a study claims.

Those over the age of 40 “may benefit” from a drink or two, with researchers finding a small amount of alcohol can help to ward off heart disease, stroke and diabetes among this age group.

But young people face higher health risks from alcohol consumption than older adults.

The research is at odds with NHS guidance which recommends Britons avoid regularly drinking more than 14 units per week.

Young people face higher health risks from alcohol consumption than older adults (Photo: Getty Images)Young people face higher health risks from alcohol consumption than older adults (Photo: Getty Images)
Young people face higher health risks from alcohol consumption than older adults (Photo: Getty Images)

What did researchers say?

Researchers called for stronger guidance to warn younger adults of the health dangers posed by drinking and said there should be tailored alcohol guidance to depend on a person’s age and where they live in the world.

Some 1.34 billion people are estimated to have consumed harmful amounts of alcohol in 2020, according to the analysis of drinking habits in 204 countries around the globe.

The study, published in The Lancet, found that 59% of those who drank harmful amounts were people aged between 15 and 39, and three quarters of these drinkers were men.

It is this age group for whom alcohol provides no health benefit and poses various risks, including injuries relating to drinking or car accidents, suicides or murders.

Senior author Dr Emmanuela Gakidou, professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine in the US, said: “Our message is simple: young people should not drink, but older people may benefit from drinking small amounts.

“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.”

The study looked at the risk of alcohol consumption on 22 health outcomes, including injuries, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers using 2020 Global Burden of Disease data.

Using this information the researchers were able to estimate how much alcohol a person can drink before taking on excess risk to their health compared with someone who does not drink at all.

Findings showed that the level of alcohol that can be consumed without increasing health risks rises throughout a lifetime, with small amounts decreasing the risk of some conditions prevalent among older people, such as ischaemic heart disease and diabetes.

What are safe levels of alcohol consumption?

Researchers deemed a standard drink as a 100ml glass of 13% wine or 375ml of 3.5% beer and determined the following safe levels of alcohol for various age groups:

Men aged 15 to 39

The recommended amount of alcohol before “risking health loss” was just 0.136 of a standard drink. This equates to about 10ml of wine – or two standard teaspoonfuls – or 38ml of beer, the equivalent of a small shot glass.

Women aged 15 to 39

The “theoretical minimum risk exposure level” was 0.273 drinks – about a quarter of a standard drink per day. This is the equivalent of about two tablespoonfuls of wine or around 100ml of beer.

Adults aged 40 and over without underlying health conditions

Drinking a small amount of alcohol was linked to some health benefits, such as reducing the risk of ischaemic heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Adults aged 40 to 64

Safe alcohol consumption levels ranged from about half a standard drink per day to almost two standard drinks.

Adults aged 65 and over

The risks of “health loss from alcohol consumption” were reached after consuming a little more than three standard drinks a day.

On average, the recommended alcohol intake for adults over the age of 40 remained low, peaking at 1.87 standard drinks per day, and after this the health risks increase with each drink.

Lead author Dana Bryazka, researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, said: “Even if a conservative approach is taken and the lowest level of safe consumption is used to set policy recommendations, this implies that the recommended level of alcohol consumption is still too high for younger populations.

“Our estimates, based on currently available evidence, support guidelines that differ by age and region.

“Understanding the variation in the level of alcohol consumption that minimises the risk of health loss for populations can aid in setting effective consumption guidelines, supporting alcohol control policies, monitoring progress in reducing harmful alcohol use, and designing public health risk messaging.”

Dr Richard Piper, chief executive of Alcohol Change UK, added: “The emerging science on alcohol, over hundreds of studies over the past 20 years, is telling us very clearly that alcohol is very damaging to the human body in multiple ways.

“We were previously unaware of this, and too many of us continue to drink as though this revolution in our knowledge hasn’t happened.

“If you care about your health, by far the best approach is not to drink at all. If you do choose to drink alcohol, listen properly to the UK’s Chief Medical Officers, and do not exceed 14 units a week (about six pints of lager or a bottle and a half of wine), have at least three alcohol-free days a week, and never exceed more than six units in one day.”

Related topics: