Is Any Amount of Alcohol Safe for Healthy Aging and Longevity?
Alcohol is so ingrained in our lives that objectively assessing its role in healthy aging and longevity needs steely determination to remain objective.
I’ll admit to being a wine lover.
Even though it’s not my personal ‘demon’ (that’s sugar), giving up wine would be a major negative for my quality of life.
However, alcohol murders restful sleep. As sleep is a cornerstone habit for longevity, the knock-on effects are profound. Add the toxic effects of sugars (including those extra calories), and negatives for your liver health.
The idea of wine being healthy always attracts the attention of the legacy press. However much I’d love to believe this, the science is anecdotal at best. Evidence from a large scale longitudinal German study, which compared previous lifestyle factors, shows the opposite.
What You’ll Find in My Alcohol and Longevity Habits Deep Dive
I set aside my love of wine, and delved into the topic for this page, breaking it down as follows:
- How Much is Safe: NHS (UK) Guidelines for men and women and why they are different. Definitions of binge drinking and Alcohol Dependence Syndrome.
- The Lifespan Stats: Broken down by the number of units consumed and correlations with chronic diseases and conditions.
- Scientific Studies: Positive effects compared to negatives, how the clinical trials compare. Can you get the benefits from cleaner sources?
- Longevity Mechanisms: How does the body break down alcohol and the other ingredients in popular drinks? How does this affect cell function, fasting benefits and sleep?
Booze and Healthy Aging: Unit Recommendations and Problem Drinking
Units are used instead of drinks in the UK NHS recommended alcohol consumption levels.
This accounts for the different alcohol content of similar drinks. For example, wine can be as low as 9% ABV or as high 14%. Beer also has a wide range.
Taking averages, a 250ml (large) glass of wine is 3 units, with a pint of (non-premium) lager 2 units and a 25ml shot of spirits at 1 unit.
The official UK healthy drinking guidelines are:
- No more than 14 units in total.
- Spread those units over three or more days.
- Include several drink-free days each week.
Some countries still have separate advice for men and women. This is based on genetic differences in breaking down alcohol, and physical size. Women have lower levels of alcohol dehydrogenase, a key enzyme for quickly breaking down alcohol.
The UK no longer makes this distinction.
The old recommendation for men was recently reduced to match the level for women. Countries including the USA still recommend lower overall units for women.
Size, age and health status are not adjusted for in these recommendations.
Alcohol and Longevity: Defining Problem Drinking
In addition to exceeding fourteen units over a week, problem drinking covers drinking those units all at once.
Anyone drinking daily, exceeding the recommended units, or regularly waking up with a hangover or memory loss has a serious problem. This requires intervention immediately to prevent major health issues.
If this describes you or someone you know. This page at Drink Aware points you to UK charitable and government organisations that will provide help.
Safe Drinking Guidelines: Drastically Lower than Social Norms
What strikes me about these guidelines is how few drinks are safe.
Six pints of beer a week is a low number for anyone that socialises in the pub. Even a glass of wine with your evening meal, plus a few others at social events will quickly tip you over. Anyone with memory loss after drinking, bad hangovers or craving the ‘hair of the dog’ must take immediate action.
I consider myself a moderate drinker.
Some weeks I have zero units, other weeks closer to ten. But for holidays, birthdays, friends visiting, and Christmas parties, I’m going way over the safe weekly limits.
When I look back at my university days, that blissful ignorance of the major damage my body was handling triggers pangs of regret.
Admitting this to myself feels strange – as I’m sure it does to millions of people who have come across the safe drinking guidelines.
The easy ‘I’m no alcoholic’ rebuttal is not enough. If we want to live a long, healthy life, then taking these guidelines seriously is a necessary step.
As with all my longevity habits, I don’t recommend a burst of willpower. That never works long term. Healthy habits, treats which don’t involve toxins and doubling down on the things that work for you is a better path. If you are already way over the safe limits, speak to a support organisation or medical professional now. My longevity habits will be right here waiting for you, but are not a substitute for professional support.
Longevity Benefits of Drinking Alcohol
Resveratrol is a powerful longevity drug – it works as an antioxidant.
You get it from red wine. Unfortunately, you need to drink approximately 233 glasses per day to get a useable amount. That would be a toxic – and even if it were not immediately fatal – the damage caused would never balance with the positive antioxidant effects.
Relaxation and social inclusion are real benefits for longevity.
It is an unfortunate truth that most social occasions involve booze. Multiple studies show that social isolation negatively affects both mental and physical health. Some people need a drink to loosen up and reduce social anxiety.
Relaxation is also important for healthy ageing. Naturally it only deals with the symptoms of our stressful lives. Despite this, reducing stress is an important factor.
Alcohol and Longevity in Numbers: The Raw Stats
Figures provided by a huge (almost 600,000 person) study were published in the Lancet in 2018.
The raw numbers painted a grim picture on expected lifespan for severe drinkers. This is based on the number of units consumed per week:
- 25+ Units: 4 to 5 years shorter life
- 14 to 25 Units: 1 to 2 years shorter life
- 7 to 14 Units: 6 months shorter life
To put those effects into context, curing all cancers tomorrow would add just over 2 years to the average lifespan.
My concerns is that the top (25+) unit group would have included individuals with serious AUD (Alcohol use disorder) issues, whose life expectancy would be massively shortened. A separate level for 50 units and above would be useful in future studies.
The NHS list the following conditions as having increased risk from alcohol misuse: heart disease, stroke, liver disease, liver cancer, bowel cancer, mouth cancer, breast cancer, pancreatitis.
Sugar spikes caused by boozing have their own list of chronic health conditions. Beer, cider and the mixers used with spirits are packed with sugar.
Alcohol and Longevity: Conflicting Studies on Moderate Drinking
Let’s face it, people love to share studies justifying that cheeky glass of wine or night out in the local.
Compared to the studies linking drink with cancers, strokes, and other chronic conditions – the ones highlighting the positives are a tiny minority.
With a multi-billion -dollar industry looking for researchers to back it up, that tiny number should give us pause for thought.
Positive studies include a trial looking at people over 90 who regularly enjoyed a small glass of wine with their main meal. This got massive publicity in the mainstream press. It found that moderate alcohol consumption in this cohort had better health outcomes than those that did not drink.
It looks like great news. That is, until you compare the population samples.
Matched age participants that did not drink at all had their reasons for not doing do. Usually, they were chronic health conditions and a long list of medications.
The people that were able to enjoy moderate red wine drinking were the healthy ones. Instead of proving that wine was the cause of good heath, this study proved that good health was the cause of drinking wine.
That said, this is an interesting study. I’d love to see a longitudinal one where participants are matched at the beginning.
Major German Study: Prior Behaviours Count When Linking Alcohol and Healthy Ageing
What I liked about this recent study by German academics is that it took the reasons for not drinking into account.
For more than 34% of participants, the reason for drinking zero alcohol now was AUD earlier in life.
Those same people were more likely to have smoked, taken drugs and engaged in risky behaviour with long-term health implications.
Add more participants that did not drink because of existing health issues, and the picture becomes cloudy.
This study demonstrated that positive effects of moderate drinking disappeared when you accounted for the history of participants. Once again, good health is what allowed continued moderate wine drinking – cause and effect are the opposite way around than we believe.
You’ll find the details on this page over at NCBI.
Alcohol and Longevity: Resveratrol, Polyphenols and Red Wine
Resveratrol is a hot topic in longevity research circles. I have delved into the debate between Dr Sinclair and his detractors here at the Age Well Times.
This molecule is found in red wine. It is highlighted as one of the health benefits of drinking. I personally assumed that this was ‘the science’ long before understanding the current research on the SIRT genes.
On his recent ‘Lifespan’ podcasts, Sinclair said that you would need to drink 233 glasses of wine to get the Resveratrol that he takes daily. That sounds like a fatal dose to me, even before totting up the number if NHS units.
Polyphenols are helpful compounds found in plants like broccoli, berries, and olives. They are antioxidants, helping reduce the oxidative stresses on our cells.
As welcome as it sounds, the amounts in wine are minute. You don’t get anywhere near reducing the stresses on your cells caused by the alcohol content.
As a side note, the myth of Guinness and Iron works in the same way. You need to drink 32 pints of Guinness to get your daily recommended Iron intake. That is close to a suicidal amount of booze.
Physiology of Alcohol: How Our Bodies Break It Down and How Longevity is Affected
The mechanisms that break down alcohol are well-known. Individual differences in enzyme production makes a big difference. Other factors include the speed you consume drinks, food in your stomach and your size and drinking history.
First, here is the basic breakdown process, centred on the liver. After that I look at how this affects the pathways associated with longevity, including oxidative stress and glucose metabolism.
Alcohol dehydrogenase is an enzyme found in the liver. It will break down 90% of the alcohol we consume. The remainder leaves through sweat, our breath or urine.
Ketones are created by the chemical breakdown of alcohol. The rate at which this is processed depends on your size, sex differences and any damage to the liver (for example from drinking previously).
Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing you can physically do to speed up the metabolism of alcohol. Food in the stomach will slow the transfer of alcohol into the blood stream (by blocking its route to the small intestine and reducing the surface area available for direct transfer).
Alcohol and Longevity Habits: The Science Tells Us One Thing, Our Hearts Say Another
I’d love to tell you that the health benefits of alcohol outweigh the costs.
It’s simply not true. Some people (for example Dr Huberman in this recent podcast on alcohol) recommend zero drinks.
I’m more pragmatic.
Not only does socialising revolve around drinking, that red wine with a meal, beer in front of your favourite sport, or single malt on a Friday can add significant quality to your experience of life.
Going to zero right away can lead to social isolation (which is ageing). The unhappiness caused won’t help with building long term health span habits at all.
My longevity habits guide suggests taking an inventory of your drinking habits. You can then reflect on where drinks add quality to your life – and identify the times you can skip the booze. This inventory includes the type of drinks you enjoy. Beer and cider (for example) have a huge sugar content, on top of the alcohol.
Your sleep will improve with fewer drinks. This is the cornerstone longevity habit. When you get quality sleep, you’ll unlock healthy eating and exercise.
Once those habits snowball, you’ll feel more energy and think more clearly. That inflection point is your signal to take the next step. That involves cutting down on alcohol, while enjoying less toxic treats instead.
Let’s raise a glass to a smart drinking future you.
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