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A few drinks a week may prolong life, but heavy drinking may shorten it

You may live longer if you consume a few drinks a week, a new study suggests. But it's not a reason to start drinking, doctors say.
/ Source: TODAY

You may live longer if you consume a few drinks a week, a new study suggests. But the flip side is also true: Heavy drinking may shorten your life.

An international team of researchers found that compared to lifetime abstainers, light to moderate drinkers were more than 20 percent less likely to die during the course of the study. Compared to abstainers, they were also nearly 15 percent less likely to die from cancer and more than 25 percent less likely to die from heart disease.

Heavy drinkers by contrast, were 29 percent more likely to die during the course of the study compared to abstainers. They were also 27 percent more likely to die from cancer compared to abstainers.

“Our research shows that light-to-moderate drinking might have some protective effects against cardiovascular disease, while heavy drinking can lead to death,” the study’s lead author Dr. Bo Xi, an associate professor at the Shandong University School of Public Health in China, said in a statement. “A delicate balance exists between beneficial and detrimental effects of alcohol consumption, which should be stressed to consumers and patients.”

Xi and his colleagues studied data from 333,247 Americans who participated in the National Health Interview Surveys between 1997 to 2009. Alcohol consumption was divided into six categories: lifetime abstainers, lifetime infrequent drinkers, former drinkers, current light drinkers (less than three drinks a week) and moderate drinkers (more than three drinks a week but less than 14 for men and less than seven for women). A drink was defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.

Along with questions about alcohol consumption, study volunteers were questioned about sex, age, race or ethnicity, education, marital status and a host of lifestyle variables including BMI, physical activity and smoking status.

The new results didn’t surprise Dr. Joon Lee, chief of cardiology and director of the Heart and Vascular Institute at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“This study is more comprehensive than a lot of the ones done in the past and it shows that low level, consistent consumption of alcohol seems to be protective against cardiovascular disease and cancer,” Lee said.

Lee was quick to point out that those protective effects can't be achieved by doing all your drinking on one day — binge drinking.

Currently no one knows exactly how light to moderate drinking might be prolonging life, Lee said. And it’s always possible that this level of drinking might simply be a marker for some other healthy behavior that the researchers haven’t accounted for, he added.

“I tell patients that this type of evidence is not a reason to start drinking,” Lee said. “It’s not like aspirin.”

The more important message from this study, Lee said, “is that heavy drinking is bad for your health.”

Addiction specialist Dr. Suena Massey agreed that this study should not prompt abstainers to start drinking for their health. While the large majority of people can drink moderately, there is a small percentage who will develop alcohol-related problems and there’s no way to know in advance who those people will be.

According to Massey, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, it wouldn’t be worth the risk of "rolling the dice," based on a study that finds an association, as opposed to proof, of alcohol’s health benefits.