‘Delicate balance’ between alcohol’s protective and harmful effects

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A new study emphasizes that, depending on patterns of consumption, alcohol could have either detrimental or beneficial health outcomes.
A new study on a large population sample has concluded that heavy drinking can have disastrous health effects, whereas light to moderate alcohol consumption could be beneficial.

Data from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) show that binge drinking and heavy alcohol consumption are fairly common practices among adults in the United States.


The NIAAA also estimate that approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women die in the country each year due to causes related to alcohol consumption.


Still, whether and in what quantities alcohol may affect your health is a point of contention. Medical News Today have recently reported both on a study that claims that moderate drinking is linked with cognitive health, and on research that reached opposite conclusions.


A new study, the lead author of which is Dr. Bo Xi, from the Shandong University School of Public Health in China, now suggests that a high intake of alcohol can lead to severe health conditions, and ultimately to a higher mortality risk, but that moderate alcohol consumption might have an overall positive effect.


The study’s findings are published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

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‘Moderate drinking may be protective’


The researchers examined data collected from a population sample of 333,247 U.S. adults using the National Health Interview surveys, which were conducted over the 12-year period between 1997 and 2009.


The participants were asked about their alcohol consumption habits, and six different use patterns were devised:


  • lifetime abstainers
  • lifetime infrequent drinkers
  • former drinkers
  • current light drinkers (people who had fewer than three drinks per week)
  • moderate drinkers (between three and 14 drinks per week for men, and seven or fewer drinks per week for women)
  • heavy drinkers (defined as more than 14 drinks per week for men, and seven drinks per week for women)

During those 12 years, 34,754 participant deaths owed to various causes were registered. Of these, 6,944 deaths were due to heart disease, 2,003 deaths were owed to cerebrovascular events, and 8,427 were due to cancer.


Overall, it was found that men who qualified as heavy drinkers had a 25 percent increased risk of mortality in general, and a 67 higher risk of death due to cancer.


The same was not true for the female participants, who did not appear to exhibit a higher mortality risk. Additionally, no link was found between heavy alcohol consumption and a higher risk of death due to cardiovascular disease.


Conversely, the researchers found that moderate drinkers had a decreased mortality risk: a 13 to 25 percent lower risk of death due to all causes, and a 21 to 34 percent lower risk of death owed to cardiovascular disease. This was true for both men and women.


Similarly, both men and women who qualified as light drinkers showed a decreased risk of mortality.


Our research shows that light to moderate drinking might have some protective effects against cardiovascular disease, while heavy drinking can lead to death. A delicate balance exists between the beneficial and detrimental effects of alcohol consumption.”

Dr. Bo Xi



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Health implications for the older population


The researchers explain that the findings remained consistent after addressing common faults found in previous studies related to alcohol consumption.


“We have taken rigorous statistical approaches to address issues reported in earlier studies such as abstainer bias, sick quitter phenomenon, and limited confounding adjustment in our study.”


“A J-shaped relationship exists between alcohol consumption and mortality, and drinkers should drink with consciousness,” says study co-author Dr. Sreenivas Veeranki, from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.



The study does have some limitations – mainly the fact that the data were obtained through self-reporting questionnaires, meaning that the participants may not have recalled all the information correctly.


An editorial published alongside the paper highlights the importance of the study’s findings to the older population.


Dr. Giovanni de Gaetano – director of the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention at IRCCS Istituto Neurologico Mediterraneo Neuromed in Italy – explains that the implications are that “for most older persons, the overall benefits of light drinking, especially the reduced cardiovascular disease risk, clearly outweigh possible cancer risk.”

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