In Depth

Is drinking wine good or bad for your health?

New report warns drinking more than five glasses a week can shorten lifespan

Bon viveurs have been left reeling by reports that drinking ten glasses of wine a week can shorten life expectancy by two years.

Or to put it another way, you lose “15 minutes of life for each unit above the safe amount, the equivalent of smoking a cigarette”, says The Daily Telegraph’s science editor Sarah Knapton.

The warning comes in a study led by the University of Cambridge and the British Heart Foundation that makes for sobering reading. 

According to their findings, published in The Lancet, the safe weekly limit for alcohol is just 12.5 units per week – around five glasses of wine or pints of beer. “More than that raises the risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm (a ruptured artery in the chest), heart failure and death,” The Guardian reports.

David Spiegelhalter, professor for the public understanding of risk at Cambridge University, told the newspaper: “Above two units a day, the death rates steadily climb.” 

The findings of the study, which analysed the health of almost 600,000 drinkers in 19 countries, appear to deal another blow to the idea that alcohol can be good for you.

“On the advice of Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies, Britain lowered guidelines in 2016 recommending that both men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol each week,” notes Knapton.

The suggestion that the limit should be even lower “challenges the widely held belief that moderate drinking is beneficial to cardiovascular health”, she says.

The study findings should also “be a wake-up call to the baby boomer generation, who regularly drink too much and are at risk of seriously shortening their lives”, Knapton adds.

So is wine ever healthy?

It’s not all doom and gloom: BBC health reporter Alex Therrien notes that researchers “did not find an increased risk of death for light drinkers”.

However, the report does challenge the idea that alcohol in moderation has overall health benefits.

“Drinking alcohol was linked with a reduced risk of non-fatal heart disease,” says Therrien. “But scientists said this benefit was wiped out by a higher risk of other forms of the illness.”

He adds that some scientists now believe that previous studies suggesting that red wine in particular may be good for our hearts may have been “overhyped”.

On the other hand, a Danish study found that “drinking three to four times a week was linked to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes”, he says.

Not everyone is convinced by the latest findings. Scottish newspaper The Herald says there is an element of “scaremongering” in the report, which sets “unrealistic” limits that are likely to be dismissed by the public.

“It should also be acknowledged that alcohol is a modest pleasure for many people - and has been for generations,” says the newspaper. “In a stressful world, there may be psychological benefits which are difficult to measure to having release valves, from the occasional bar of chocolate, to a glass of wine or a burger.”

The Herald’s conclusion? “Everything in moderation, including medical advice.”

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