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Massive Study Finds Alcohol Is a Leading Contributor to Death And Disease Worldwide

MIKE MCRAE
23 AUG 2018

Of all the things that threaten to kill or disable us, alcohol takes a disturbingly high spot on the list - according to global estimates based on people's state of health and levels of alcohol consumed.

 

If fact, for people aged between 15 and 49, alcohol is the leading cause of harm worldwide. We have a serious drinking problem.

Every other week there's a new study attempting to calculate the risks and benefits of drinking alcohol. Broadly legal and typically more socially acceptable than most drugs, it's easy to assume the pros and cons somehow balance out in the long run.

But a new Global Burden of Disease assessment on the impact of alcohol around the world has found no reason to think even a small tipple will help us live longer, healthier lives.

Max Griswold from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington lead a study that looked at data from nearly hundreds of studies and data sources involving roughly 28 million individuals.

According to his findings, any health benefits are easily overwhelmed by alcohol's mind-altering and toxic effects.

"Previous studies have found a protective effect of alcohol on some conditions, but we found that the combined health risks associated with alcohol increase with any amount," says Griswold.

Approximately 2.4 billion people – or around 1 in 3 – drink alcohol, with the number of male drinkers greatly outnumbering the women.

 

Women also drink less on average, with less than three quarters of a standard drink (which is 10 grams of alcohol) per day compared with just under two for men.

So it might come as no great surprise to find that while alcohol was a key factor in just under 4 percent of deaths for women aged 15 to 49 in 2016, for men in that same age group the risk tripled to a whopping 12.2 percent.

This makes it the leading risk factor for an early grave in 2016 for most adults. In most cases alcohol use exacerbated the effects of other diseases such as tuberculosis, or was deemed a major factor in road injury or self-harm.

For seniors aged in their 50s and older, alcohol-attributed mortality wasn't quite as bad. Where it was an issue, alcohol was related to some form of cancer, constituting 27.1 percent of deaths for women and 18.9 percent for men.

Combined, it makes alcohol the seventh leading risk factor for premature death and disability across all demographic groups.

This isn't to say that alcohol has zero benefits. But statistics that seemed to suggest some small protective qualities, such as for diabetics or for those with ischemic heart disease, weren't considered to be significant, and were easily swamped by a leap in risks for other health conditions.

 

We're not doctors so we're not going to categorically tell you to put down that drink; but we can say that your claims about that cheeky glass of red adding years to your life are not panning out well.

In any case, individuals can make up their own minds. For policy makers focussed on overall public health, these figures make for sober reading.

"Policies focussing on reducing alcohol consumption to the lowest levels will be important to improve health," says Griswold.

"The widely held view of the health benefits of alcohol needs revising, particularly as improved methods and analyses continue to shed light on how much alcohol contributes to global death and disability."

This latest GBD report isn't the first study to come to this conclusion. Previous studies have relied heavily on self-reported estimates and alcohol sales, both of which can underreport actual figures.

While these figures still played a role in this study, additional data from diverse sources was included to check its reliability, providing for one of the most robust studies on the topic so far.

 

"The conclusions of the study are clear and unambiguous," says Robyn Burton from King's College London, who wasn't involved in the research.

"Alcohol is a colossal global health issue and small reductions in health-related harms at low levels of alcohol intake are outweighed by the increased risk of other health-related harms, including cancer."

With a growing opioid crisis and the legalisation of cannabis in the US, the pressure is on policy makers to find a balance between healthcare and liberal freedoms.

With alcohol such a deeply embedded part of culture across the world, mitigating its impact on our health could prove to be the biggest challenge yet.

This research was published in The Lancet.