In nearly 10% of global deaths for people between the ages of 15 and 49, alcohol use is a leading risk factor. In 2016, alcohol use led to 2.8 million deaths worldwide and was the leading risk factor for premature death and disability, accounting for almost 9% of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) among men and more than 2% among women.
The researchers reviewed “all associated relative risks for alcohol use [and] found that consuming zero standard drinks daily minimizes overall risk to health.” For this study, a standard drink is equal to 10 grams of pure ethyl alcohol. That’s less than the alcohol content of one 12-ounce can of beer.
The new study used 694 data sources of individual and population-level alcohol consumption, along with 592 prospective and retrospective studies on the risk of alcohol use to produce estimates of the prevalence of current drinking, abstention, the distribution of alcohol consumption among current drinkers in standard drinks daily, and alcohol-attributable deaths and DALYs.
The data were reported Thursday in British medical journal The Lancet, based on a new study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The full study, titled “Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990-2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016,” is available on The Lancet website.
Alcohol use was the seventh leading global risk factor for deaths and DALYs in 2016, accounting for 2.2% of all female deaths and 6.8% of male deaths that year. Among women between the ages of 15 and 49, alcohol use was the leading risk factor in 3.8% of deaths. Among men in the same age group, alcohol accounted for 12.2% of all deaths.
For people aged 50 and older, the researchers found that cancers accounted for 27.1% of all alcohol-attributed deaths among women in 2016 and 18.9% of all such deaths in males.
The study acknowledged other research suggesting that low levels of alcohol consumption can “have a protective effect on ischaemic heart disease, diabetes, and several other outcomes.” The researchers were skeptical:
Our results on the weighted attributable risk [of alcohol use] … emphasise that alcohol use, regardless of amount, leads to health loss across populations. Although we found some protective effects for ischaemic heart disease and diabetes among women, these effects were offset when overall health risks were considered—especially because of the strong association between alcohol consumption and the risk of cancer, injuries, and communicable disease. These findings stress the importance of assessing how alcohol use affects population health across the lifespan.
The new study suggests that the “widely held view of the health benefits of alcohol needs revising,” especially as new research methods and analyses continue to indicate the impact of alcohol use on global death and disability.