A global study recently published in The Lancet assessed the impact of alcohol consumption on health outcomes in a range of low- to high-income countries. Although alcohol abuse is the third leading cause of death and disability in the world according to the World Health Organization, the relationship between alcohol and health is complex. Studies suggest that moderate drinking may improve heart health and reduce risk for heart disease. At the same time, it may also increase risk for certain types of cancer and other serious conditions. Most studies on the issue have been conducted in high-income countries.
To learn more about this global health issue, researchers analyzed data from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiological (PURE) study. Started in 2003, the PURE study was designed to analyze a variety of environmental, societal and biological influences on risk for obesity and chronic diseases.
A total of 114,970 participants from 12 different countries were included in the study. Participants were anywhere from 35–70 years old at the start of the study and completed questionnaires about their health and lifestyle, including drinking habits. Researchers then followed participants for roughly four years, tracking outcomes like heart disease, cancer and death.
Overall, nearly one-third of participants were current drinkers. Among all participants, current drinking was associated with 24% lower risk of heart attack, yet 51% greater risk of alcohol-related cancers and 29% greater risk of injury. High alcohol consumption increased risk of mortality by 31%. Interestingly, the protective effect of moderate alcohol use on cardiovascular health was not seen in low- and middle-income countries.
As experts explain, findings suggest that drinking patterns play a major role in health outcomes. Although alcohol use is less common in low- and middle-income countries, adults were more likely to engage in occasional consumption of large quantities of spirits—often referred to as binge drinking. Binge drinking is extremely harmful to health, and in this study was associated with increased risk of injury and death in all countries. Drinking moderately on a regular basis, however, is more common in high-income countries and may benefit heart health.
Based on findings, authors believe that policies to reduce alcohol-related injury and death are high-priority, especially in low- and middle-income countries. While moderate drinking may reduce cardiovascular risk, these benefits were offset in low- and middle-income countries by the significant increased risk of injury, cancer and death. Experts suggest that increasing the price of alcohol and reducing its availability may help combat harmful drinking. Efforts are also needed to educate individuals about how low-risk drinking is defined and the harmful effects of binge drinking on health.