How Much Alcohol Is Safe? A Beer a Day Linked With Increased Risk of Death

Drinking what is officially considered to be a healthy amount of alcohol could raise a person's risk of dying by 20 percent, scientists have warned.

Researchers investigating the potential harms of drinking alcohol found that consuming at least one to two drinks four times a week could raise a person's chance of dying earlier, compared with those who drank three times a week or less.

This stands in contrast to official drinking guidelines. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, says women can safely consume one drink a day and men can drink two.

One drink is defined as 12 ounces of 5 percent alcohol by volume beer, 8 ounces of 7 percent ABV malt liquor, 5 ounces of 12 percent ABV wine and 1.5 ounces of 40 percent ABV distilled spirits or liquor. Those who don't drink alcohol should not start under the assumption that it will boost their health, officials warned.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drinking in excess led to around 88,000 deaths per year between 2006 and 2010, shortening the lives of patients by an average of three decades.

The paper was published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research months after scientists warned in a separate study in The Lancet that there is no safe level when it comes to drinking alcohol. That conclusion was the result of an analysis of almost 700 studies.

Researchers studied data on over 400,000 people to understand the risks of drinking alcohol. Getty Images

Dr. Sarah Hartz, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine and first author of the study, told Newsweek, "This study is the first to show that daily drinking is dangerous."

She noted that the increased mortality rates linked to drinking appeared to be predominantly due to cancer.

The team at the Washington University School of Medicine arrived at its conclusion by studying data on 340,668 people between 18 and 85 years old from the National Health Interview Survey, and a further 93,653 people between 40 and 60 who were patients at Veterans Affairs clinics.

Drinking a glass of wine a day shouldn't be considered healthy, warned study author Dr. Sarah M. Hartz. Getty Images

Related: How drinking a little alcohol protects the heart uncovered in new study

"It was very surprising to us that we found the same result in two very different data sets," said Hartz. One was a large national survey that represents the general population, while the other provides insights into older veterans. "Finding the same thing in both groups makes us think that the result is robust and generalizable," said Hartz.

While the jury is out on whether drinking is beneficial to heart health, the evidence strongly indicates that alcohol increases cancer risk, the authors wrote.

In June, for example, scientists at Stanford University and the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, published a study, based on mice, showing why moderate drinking might protect the heart.

Commenting on the limitations of the study she authored, Hartz said that even though variables such as age, race, gender and smoking habits were taken into account, the relationship between drinking and death is difficult to study, as many factors can skew the results.

"The other issue is that our measures of alcohol use are based on asking people how much they drink, which isn't always accurate. Despite these limitations, because of the large samples and that the same result was seen in such different groups, we are fairly confident that the results are correct," she said.

Hartz suggested in a statement that as personalized medicine becomes more widespread and advanced, doctors may be able to test patients for their disease risks and tailor their safe drinking levels accordingly. Those with heart problems might be advised to drink small amounts, while those predisposed to cancer may be told to cut alcohol out of their diets completely.

She stressed, "We should no longer tell ourselves that a glass of wine daily is good for us. There are many things that we chose to do that are unhealthy, and drinking should be considered one of them."

Dr. Max Griswold, senior researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and lead author of The Lancet, who was not involved in the new study, told Newsweek the work is important as it analyzes how often a person drinks and the impact on their risk of death. "Other research typically looks at amount rather than frequency on health conditions."

However, he also pointed out a potential downfall. "When looking at all-cause mortality, given the wide differences in mortality outcomes that exist by age, it's important to measure age groups separately by risk," he said. "This study did not do so, which significantly limits the applicability of the results for other uses."

Dr. James Nicholls, director of research and policy development at Alcohol Research U.K., told Newsweek the research found what is known as a J-shaped graph curve, similar to other large-scale studies on the effects of drinking.

"So light drinkers appear to be at lower risk than both abstainers and heavier drinkers. For cancer, any drinking increases risk—although the absolute level of risk is very small at low levels," he said.

As for the take-home message for the public, Griswold advised: "People should likely drink at most one to two drinks per occasion, at most three days a week."

This piece has been updated with comment by Dr. Max Griswold and Dr. James Nicholls.