Numerous research studies have found that moderate drinking is likely to be beneficial, but Danish researchers have gone a step further.
Professor Thorkild Sorensen, of the Copenhagen Institute of Preventive Medicine, and his colleagues can show that low but regular drinking - one to six drinks a week - is the magic quantity for longer life.
Their findings suggest that low to moderate drinking throughout adult years has little effect on lifespan, while not drinking at all may mean that you die sooner than might be expected.
Total abstainers were nearly one and a half times more likely to die in the 10 to 12 years of the follow-up period, and the heavy drinkers who had more than 70 alcoholic drinks a week were nearly two and a half times more likely to die.
For people who drink moderately to heavily, at levels of between 41 and 69 drinks a week, the increased risk of death was the same as that of the teetotallers.
A drink was equivalent to a bottle of beer, a glass of wine or a measure of spirit, between 9 and 13 grams of alcohol.
The researchers go on to estimate that if all the 13,285 men and women in their study had taken one to six alcoholic drinks a week during their adult life - the heavy drinkers drinking less and the abstainers drinking something - then one in eight deaths would have been prevented. This would have increased the life expectancy of the group, in the 10 to 12 years studied, by 12.5 per cent.
Another surprising finding in the Danish study is that the effects of alcohol on the risk of death in men and women are the same, despite the fact that alcohol is held to be more injurious to women, who are more susceptible to cirrhosis of the liver.
'Our analysis revealed no interaction between sex (gender) and alcohol intake on the risk of dying from all causes. Thus the relative risks of dying from alcohol intake were the same for men and women,' they say in tomorrow's edition of the British Medical Journal.
Drinking habits had the same effects on dying whether men and women were young or old, thin or obese, smokers or non-smokers. However, men who were heavy drinkers and both obese and heavy smokers (more than 20 grams of tobacco daily) had a nine times higher risk of death.
In the study supported by the Danish Medical Research Council, the Danish Heart Foundation, the Danish Insurance Association and King Christian X's Foundation, the randomly selected men and women aged 30 to 79 were asked to give their drinking habits on a number of scales from up to one drink a week to 70 or more. The study began in 1976. After 10 to 12 years the researchers looked to see how many in their groups had died.
While one to six drinks a week was the most statistically powerful quantity for longer life expectancy, risk of death increased slowly after that as drinking went up. 'The relative risk of death did not increase significantly until the intake reached 42 to 69 beverages a week at which level the mortality equals that of teetotallers,' Professor Sorensen says.
In the UK, the Department of Health recommends that people should keep their alcohol intake to 21 units a week for men and 14 for women. A unit is equivalent to a glass of wine, a measure of spirit or a half pint of ordinary strength beer. One unit contains eight grams of alcohol.
Leading article, page 15
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