Even light drinking increases chance of early death

Credit: Anna Li/ Credit: Anna Li/

A new study from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri suggests that even light drinking four or more times per week can increase the risk of premature death by about 20 percent. The study, titled “Daily drinking is associated with increased mortality” and published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research on Oct. 3, evaluated data from more than 400,000 participants with ages ranging from 18 to 35, aiming to analyze the risks specifically for light drinkers, unlike previous studies that have looked at alcohol consumption in a broader scope.

First author and assistant professor of psychiatry Sarah M. Hartz (M.D., Ph.D.) thinks people should be wary of past research suggesting that mild to moderate drinking can have health benefits. “It used to seem like having one or two drinks per day was no big deal, and there even have been some studies suggesting it can improve health,” she told ScienceDaily. “But now we know that even the lightest daily drinkers have an increased mortality risk.”

Indeed, prior work has shown some cardiovascular benefits of, for example, a daily glass of wine, but the new study finds that the increased cancer risk from alcohol consumption drives up the mortality risk enough to negate any positive effects.

“Consuming one or two drinks about four days per week seemed to protect against cardiovascular disease, but drinking every day eliminated those benefits,” said Hartz. “With regard to cancer risk, any drinking at all was detrimental.”

The federally-funded study through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had two groups of focus: 340,668 National Health Interview Survey participants (ages 18 to 85), and 93,653 individuals (ages 40 to 60) who visited Veterans Administration clinics as outpatients. According to Hartz, although a 20 percent increase in mortality risk among individuals in their 20s and 30s may not be very significant since the overall chance of death remains low, the same increase for people over age 75 can be astounding, especially for individuals with a family history of cancer.

It is possible that over time, the personalization of medicine will allow doctors to recommend an amount of alcohol consumption that is safe for an individual based on their susceptibility to certain conditions. For example, someone at high risk for heart disease might find that occasional light drinking (three or less times per week) is helpful to reduce the chance of cardiovascular issues, while someone prone to cancer might want to abstain.

The Washington University study comes not long after a review article of more than 700- studies in 195 countries published in The Lancet found that “the safest level of drinking is none.” Hartz agrees, “Overall, I do think people should no longer consider a glass of wine a day to somehow be healthy.”