Volume 14, Number 10
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently use the following guidelines for low-risk consumption of alcohol in the United States:
- For women, no more than 3 drinks on a single occasion and no more than 7 drinks per week.
- For men, no more than 4 drinks on a single occasion and no more than 14 drinks per week.
- For men and women over age 65, no more than 3 drinks on a single occasion and no more than 7 drinks per week.
- For persons under age 21 and pregnant women, no alcohol consumption.
Depending upon one’s usual amount of alcohol consumption, the guidelines may appear generous, or restrictive. Two articles published this year in The Lancet offer yet another perspective.
The article published in April reported the combined analyses of three large data sources from 83 prospective studies, involving nearly 600,000 current drinkers in 19 high-income countries. For deaths from all causes for men and women, lowest risk was found to be at 100 grams per week, or seven drinks per week. The authors indicated that a 40-year-old man currently having 14 drinks per week could extend his life expectancy by 1-2 years if he cuts back to 7 drinks per week. The only specific disease exception found was heart attack. Risk of stroke, heart failure, and other types of cardiovascular disease all increased with greater amounts of alcohol consumption.
The article published in August described a systemic analysis of the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. The authors used 694 data sources along with 592 prospective and retrospective studies to examine a number of factors related to alcohol consumption, including prevalence of drinking and alcohol-attributable deaths and disability. One of their goals was to quantify the degree of alcohol use that minimizes health risk. What they concluded was that the amount of alcohol consumption that minimizes harm to health is zero drinks per week. While there was evidence that alcohol can have some protective benefits regarding coronary artery disease (similar to the study mentioned above), this benefit was offset by increased risk for cancer, injuries, or other health problems.
Of course, there have been critics of these studies from a scientific perspective, particularly regarding their methodology. With respect to commercial interests, the alcoholic beverage industry is estimated to have at least a $200 billion presence in the economy. On the other hand, healthcare-related costs of excessive alcohol use are estimated to exceed $250 billion.
Whether or not there will be changes to recommended guidelines for low-risk alcohol consumption remains to be seen. What is clear is that there is no evidence in health research suggesting that current guidelines for alcohol use should be exceeded, nor is there any evidence that binge drinking is safe.
One drink is defined as 0.6 ounces (14 grams) of pure alcohol. This translates to:
- 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol)
- 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol)
- 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol)
- 5 ounces of liquor, 80-proof (40% alcohol)
Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.
… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor, Director of Research, and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.
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