That Extra Glass of Wine Might Take 30 Minutes Off Your Life

Researchers studying alcohol consumption and mortality have advised countries like the United States to slash their drinking guidelines. U.S. recommendations state that men shouldn't consume more than 14 standard drinks per week, which is nearly twice the limit proposed in this new study.

Pooling data from 83 studies of current drinkers in 19 high-income countries, researchers linked an alcohol intake of more than 3.5 oz. alcohol—about seven standard U.S. drinks—with higher mortality. Their research is published in the journal The Lancet.

According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, a standard drink in the U.S. is a 12 fl oz. can of regular (5 percent alcohol) beer, a 5 fl oz. glass of 12 percent wine or a 1.5 fl oz. shot of a 40-percent distilled spirit like vodka or whiskey. The guidelines recommended women over 21 drink no more than one drink per day, but it rose to two drinks for men.

Study participants who said they consumed more than seven drinks per week had higher overall rates of mortality. At 40 years of age, those who had an intake of between seven and 14 drinks per week had a six-month-lower estimated life expectancy than those who drank fewer than seven.

Forty-year-olds consuming between 14 and 25 drinks per week had about 1-2 years' lower life expectancy, while those drinking more than 25 drinks per week had about 4-5 years' lower life expectancy than those drinking less than seven.

Two years is one-twentieth of a 40-year-old's life. You could think of that as about an hour per day, or just under half an hour per extra drink. That's about the same risk as from a cigarette, David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, explained in a statement. "Of course, it's up to individuals whether they think this is worthwhile." Spiegelhalter was not involved in the research.

Around half of the nearly 600,000 participants said they consumed the equivalent of more than of seven alcoholic drinks per week, while nearly 10 percent reported drinking more than 25.

Saint-Émilion, France, April 10. Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

"This is a serious wake-up call for many countries," said Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation charity, which helped fund the study, in a statement. The recommended upper limit for alcohol intake also exceeded seven drinks per week in countries like Italy, Portugal and Spain.

Researchers also looked at the link between heart disease and alcohol intake. No participants had a known history of cardiovascular disease, but scientists found that alcohol intake was linked to a higher risk of stroke, heart failure, fatal high blood-pressure disease and fatal aortic aneurysm. Unlike overall mortality's seven drinks a week, there wasn't a clear cutoff between lower alcohol intake and lower disease risk.

On the other hand, the risk of nonfatal heart attacks was somewhat smaller for people drinking more.

"Alcohol consumption is associated with a slightly lower risk of nonfatal heart attacks, but this must be balanced against the higher risk associated with other serious—and potentially fatal— cardiovascular diseases," cautioned lead study author Angela Wood from the University of Cambridge.

In spite of the massive number of participants, the study was limited in a number of ways. It relied on self-reported drinking habits and didn't take into account the effect of alcohol over the course of a person's life, for example. Participants were enrolled in the study between 1964 and 2010.

Limits notwithstanding, the research team couldn't be clearer on their results. Co-author Edoardo Casiglia of the University of Padua said, "This study provides clear evidence to support lowering the recommended limits of alcohol consumption in many countries around the world."

"The key message of this research is that if you already drink alcohol, drinking less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditions," Wood added.