No amount of alcohol is healthy, new study says
A team of researchers recently analyzed the connection between genes linked to alcohol consumption and cardiovascular conditions and found that drinking - any amount - was associated with an increased risk of disease.
The study, which was published last week in JAMA Network Open, examined genetic and medical data of nearly 400,000 people through the U.K. Biobank, a large research database in Britain containing genetic, lifestyle and health information available for public health research.
The findings showed that even low alcohol intake was associated with a small increased risk of cardiovascular issues, such as hypertension and coronary artery disease, but that risk ramped up exponentially with heavier consumption.
It also suggested that the previously held theory that modest drinking, namely of red wine, may help decrease the risk of heart disease is probably not the case. Individuals more likely to drink low to moderate amounts of alcohol also appeared to be more health-minded than those who abstained from it - for example, smoking less, exercising more and eating healthier - all factors that contribute to better heart health, said Krishna Aragam, senior author of the study and a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
He said these other factors, such as diet and exercise, may be "mediating that reduction risk" of cardiovascular issues attributed to low amounts of alcohol consumption. "Maybe it's not the alcohol itself," he said.
Even red wine, which has been touted at times as being heart-healthy, does not seem to have substantial benefits.
Some research has suggested resveratrol, a compound found in grape skins, particularly those of red grapes, may act like antioxidants and contribute to heart health, but most likely not enough to have a meaningful impact. Another study found that a person would have to drink at least 500 liters of red wine per day to get enough resveratrol to benefit from it.
Given the recent findings on alcohol consumption and cardiovascular disease risks, Stanley Hazen, a cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic who was not involved in the recent study, said he will be amending his recommendations to patients.
Hazen said when his patients have asked him about drinking in the past, he has told them it is fine in moderation and may even provide an advantage. "But now I think that was wrong," he said, pointing to emerging research. "So for people who are at high risk of cardiovascular disease, which is over half the people who I see on a daily basis in my clinic, I am going to be recommending cutting back on alcohol."
But cardiovascular health is not the only concern. Studies have linked moderate alcohol consumption to numerous types of cancers involving the mouth and throat, voice box (or larynx), esophagus, colon and rectum.
For women, light to moderate drinking has been associated with a significant increased risk of breast cancer.
Ernest Hawk, division head for cancer prevention and population sciences at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, said there is not one particular way in which alcohol leads to cancer. "There are many different ways alcohol causes toxicity to cells that are believed to result in cancer development over time," he said.
Drinking alcohol can lead to significant damage to the liver. Initially, it can cause inflammation of the liver known as acute alcoholic hepatitis. But over time, it can lead to cirrhosis, which can cause liver cancer, liver failure and death, said Jamile' Wakim-Fleming, director of the Fatty Liver Disease Program at Cleveland Clinic.