Minimal alcohol drinking linked to longer life

Our life expectancy is lower if we drink more than 125ml of alcohol a week, according to new research.

“Drinking alcohol at levels which were believed to be safe is actually linked with lower life expectancy and several adverse health outcomes,” says Dr Dan Blazer from Duke University, a co-author of the Lancet study.

The decline in life expectancy was found to start slightly below the UK’s guideline maximum amount of 140ml, or 14 UK units, a week. Guideline maximums in Italy, Portugal and Spain are almost 50% higher, while the US one for men is nearly double.

The lives of those who drank 125-250ml a week were shorter by around six months over the age of 40. Those who drank 250-438ml lived between one and two years less, while drinking beyond the top end of the range typically cut lifetimes by between four and five years.

It strengthens evidence, the authors say, that “total cardiovascular disease risk is actually comprised of several distinct and opposite dose–response curves rather than a single J-shaped association”.

Higher alcohol consumption was associated with a higher risk of stroke, heart failure, fatal hypertensive disease, and fatal aortic aneurysm, with no thresholds below which lower alcohol consumption stopped reducing risk (see chart).

But higher consumption was also associated with a lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks, or “myocardial infarctions”. The authors say, however, that the increased risk of having fatal heart problems means we are likely to lose years of life if we were to drink alcohol to ward off non-fatal problems.

“The key message of this research for public health is that, if you already drink alcohol, drinking less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditions,” said Dr Angela Wood, lead author of the study from Cambridge University.

Non-drinkers were excluded from the study, because we often stop drinking when we develop health problems, so skewing the numbers. The study also excluded people with pre-existing heart conditions. ■

Alcohol: One of many ways to flavour

Alcohol transports complex aromas exceptionally well, and aroma enriches our experience by awakening memories, feelings and appetites. But we need not ingest alcohol to experience it and alternatives abound, opening up many exciting new possibilities.

We can find a whiff of alcohol rewarding, having evolved from insects, tiny early mammals and more recently apes for whom mouldering fruit is a valuable lifeline. Our evolutionary heritage also means we are equipped to digest small quantities without a hitch.

Nearly all perfumes are based on an alcohol solution, and for good reason. Alcohol is a versatile solvent able to break down oily compounds and preserve organic ones. And it also evaporates quickly at room temperature, so sending aromatic compounds whirling into the air.

Alcohol also mixes with water, so we can use it as a flavour-enhancer in mostly made of water, which we need to live. Beer and wine are water with a flavour-enhancing 5-15% alcohol, while spirits have 35% or more and “fortified” wines and cocktails are usually in the middle.

But we can harness alcohol’s aroma-enhancing properties using tiny quantities. A splash can be enough, like a dab of perfume. And we do not need to ingest it to appreciate its aromatic contribution. Professional wine-tasters spit out their samples.

So the current low-risk guideline of no more than 14 UK units (140ml) of alcohol is more than enough to make full use of alcohol’s merits as a flavour enhancer, for both food or drink. The risk of overstepping the mark can be more easily avoided if we leave it out of our diet entirely.

And eliminating alcohol need not diminish our enjoyment of flavour. Water is an extraordinary solvent too, able to deliver a huge range of aromas with no added health pitfalls. We can significantly enhance our experience by simply paying more attention as we eat and drink.

Life is getting easier if we choose to avoid alcohol, with a growing range of “unleaded” versions of traditionally alcoholic drinks, allowing us to blend in easily and have the positive placebo effect with no risk. Mocktail recipes abound for the adventurous.

We can also enormously boost water’s flavour-bearing capacity without adding alcohol to it. Heat makes water a much better solvent and also makes it evaporate far faster, making aroma airborne, as with alcohol. So warm drinks are typically far more aromatic than cold ones.

Hot water’s heightened extraction and evaporation is the driving force of cocoa, tea and coffee. Both they offer a huge range of flavours, aromas and oral sensations rivalling their colder cousins. We can also get a benign buzz from caffeine and the mildly sedating effect of theanine in tea.

Communities of enthusiasts and vendors give us easy access to good information and supply. There are tens of thousands of teas and coffees, all with fascinating history, science, culture and innovation to explore. So too cooking and home-made drinks.

Limiting our alcohol consumption to safeguard our wellbeing does not limit to our access to the life-enhancing world of taste and smell. It can, in fact, make us value it more and be more open to new experiences which are at least as enjoyable and eye-opening.

 

Alcohol: Our legacy social medium🗼


There was a social media giant in startup tens of thousands of years before Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter started vying for our attention: alcohol. Continue reading “Alcohol: Our legacy social medium🗼”

Alcohol: Go with the flow🗼


Being alcohol aware can help us to be brain aware too, by going with the flow from which all our thoughts and feelings arise.

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Alcohol: Go easy on the amygdala🗼


Fear is often our friend, but alcohol makes it more difficult to quash unhelpful worries and so prolongs the ill-effects of our misfortunes.

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Alcohol Companion Newsletter 53, March 15th 2018


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This issue: The public are okay with health labels; Go with the flow: being brain aware means being alcohol aware; Alcohol-dementia link seriously underestimated; We can avoid alcohol-induced problems. Alcohol Companion is a “must-read”, says supermodel.

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Fact-check: Support for alcohol labelling

The alcohol industry’s Portman Group (PG) is using a study it co-funded to resist calls for providing health information on alcoholic drink labels. Here’s a look at what the study actually says.

Continue reading “Fact-check: Support for alcohol labelling”

Alcohol Companion: “A must-read for anyone wanting to explore their true relationship with alcohol,” Alison Canavan

“This book opened my eyes in so many ways about how alcohol really affects our body and mind. A must-read for anyone wanting to explore their true relationship with alcohol.”Alison Canavan, wellness advocate and supermodel.

We can avoid alcohol’s mental health icebergs

A brain-centred approach will enable millions of us to avoid the alcohol icebergs we know are out there. 

The latest smudge on the radar screen was made this week by 10,000 extra cases of early-onset dementia lurking in French medical data. Alcohol factored in 57% of them, tripling the risk of all dementias. This mass suffering must be mourned, as is the fact that the risks are not widely known, as I discovered investigating my book Alcohol Companion.

Other investigations are poised to confirm the dementia statistic, which is almost certainly an underestimate. “No surprise,” say many in the psychiatric and mental health professions on reading this week’s dementia statistic. For them alcohol damage is is a commonplace of working knowledge. 

There are more statistical icebergs are out there too, simply waiting to be given wider recognition. There is already an undisputed correlation between drinking more than a little alcohol and depression and anxiety. So too post-traumatic stress, problems with decision-making abilities, cognition, memory and impulse control.

Some of us may know this on paper or have found out from experience, but how many of us really act on what we know? It is already known that drinking no more than 14 UK units (140ml) of alcohol a week will minimise our chances of problems. If we take our mental health seriously, as surely we should, we need to follow this guidance.

Our brains are not just the fall-guy in our relationship with alcohol either, they also initiate it. We drink alcohol because we like how our brains make us feel after, feelings informed by our beliefs. We often imagine it boosts our confidence, our mood and or helps us relax, all understandable ideas, but also inaccurate enough to backfire.

The brain-centricity of this week’s news make it a turning point, but real change will not happen overnight. As if to illustrate, a story ran alongside it peddling the “good news” that alcohol may prolong our lives. No matter, it seems, these reports were slammed by experts in alcohol and longevity as misleading speculation.

But these lapses of collective reason do not spoil the real good news about the path of our relationship with alcohol. The ice has been broken about mental health which has gone from taboo to borderline trendy, with young people drinking less. The internet, for all its problems, has put us in touch with our psychological quirks, both good and bad. And we can inform, organise and support each other better than ever.

There are still formidable alcohol icebergs out there which will come to wider recognition in due course. We can be sure of that. But we also have the knowledge and tools to minimise risk. It can only get better, even if it is sometimes a bumpy ride.

Alcohol-dementia link far bigger than thought

Alcohol drinking is linked to 57% of cases of early-onset dementia, according to a new study, far more than most experts had guessed.

“Our findings suggest that the burden of dementia attributable to alcohol use disorders is much larger than previously thought,” says lead author Dr Michaël Schwarzinger of the Translational Health Economics Network.

“While it is widely recognised that heavy drinking can have detrimental physical effects, we have not tended to think about these in terms of brain functioning. This research suggests we should focus more of our attention in that direction,” says James Nicholls of Alcohol Research UK.

Alcohol use disorders were associated with three-times the risk of all types of dementia, making it the strongest modifiable risk factor for dementia onset. The paper suggests reducing dementia cases by having screening, interventions and treatment for heavy drinking.

The alcohol-dementia link may be stronger even than this study implies because alcohol problems are underdiagnosed. The French study made the link by looking at diagnoses of mental and behavioural disorders attributed to alcohol use or and alcohol-related liver disease.

The finding is “immensely important” according to Professor Clive Ballard of the University of Exeter. “We should move forward with clear public health messages about the relationship between both alcohol use disorders and alcohol consumption, respectively, and dementia.”

“The link between dementia and alcohol use disorders needs further research, but is likely a result of alcohol leading to permanent structural and functional brain damage,” says Dr Schwarzinger. He also recommends cutting availability, increasing tax and banning advertising.

Of the 57,000 early onset dementia cases examined, 18% came alongside a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder, in addition to the 39% of cases which were already recognised as being alcohol-related. Early onset dementia is dementia diagnosed before we are 65.

The association between heavy drinking and dementia onset has been poorly measured. This is a reason why it was not included in the modifiable risk factors included in the Lancet commission on dementia prevention last year, says Dr Schwarzinger.

Drinking consistently less than 14 UK units (140ml) of alcohol a week is reckoned to mean dementia risk is low. Alcohol is not a medicine or health tonic.

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We can avoid the alcohol mental health icebergs