The Inconvenient Truth About Alcohol
Drinking is much deadlier than we wish to admit, and the problems start way too early in life.
Here’s a little reality many of us don’t want to hear: Alcohol is really bad for us in pretty much any quantity at any age. There, I said it. And yes, you may argue that a stiff belt or two helps you relax in the evening or that a good meal isn’t complete without a glass of wine or that beer is one of the main food groups. I’ve been right there with you for years, pinning my hopes on these delightful illusions to justify one, or one too many, on a regular basis.
But our rose-colored drinking glasses are blind to the fact that alcohol is one of the deadliest things we humans regularly ingest with wholehearted eagerness.
By a very conservative estimate, alcohol shortens the lives of 93,000 people in the United States every year, by a whopping average of 29 years. These numbers include deaths by alcohol-driven car crashes and violence, but 55% owe to heart and liver disease, cancers, and other alcohol-caused health woes.
And it doesn’t take much.
The finding, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is based on 100 adults who were monitored by electronic devices to measure their actual drinking and their resulting heart-rate changes. Across four weeks, 56 of the individuals had at least one episode of atrial fibrillation and having one was twice as likely among people who’d had a drink in the past four hours. The risk rose slightly with additional drinks.
But that’s just one study. Let’s look at the broader evidence.
Among the leading ways alcohol kills is by atherosclerosis, a narrowing and stiffening or hardening of the arteries caused by a buildup of plaque on the artery walls that forces the heart to work harder, causing high blood pressure that raises the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and dementia. Arterial stiffening happens naturally, but drinking accelerates the process.
This is true even for light to moderate drinkers. A 2019 study found that people who have seven to 13 drinks per week are 53% more likely than nondrinkers to have high blood pressure. Similar conclusions were reached in a 2014 study. We just haven’t wanted to hear it.
(In a previous article, I explained why so many older, rosier studies were unwittingly skewed to generate hearteningly positive conclusions about light to moderate drinking.)
All ages welcome
Booze does not discriminate by age. Binge drinking — typically defined as four in one session for women and five for men once a month or more — is most common among people ages 25 to 34, but it’s growing in popularity among the over-50 set. Even seniors are getting in on the game: More than 10% of people 65 and older are binge drinkers.
Startlingly, 8% of eighth graders have had a drink, and 4% of them binge drink while 14% of high-school seniors binge. When heavy alcohol consumption starts in childhood, alcoholism later on is more likely.
Now comes this disturbing new study:
When adolescents and young adults drink, their arteries begin to stiffen at a rate faster than the norm, putting them at greater risk for heart disease and premature death later on. The finding was presented last month at a meeting of the European Society of Cardiology but is not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal.
By age 24, the arteries of those who consumed five or more drinks in a typical binge session were 4% stiffer than the arteries of nondrinkers, explains study leader Hugo Walford, a medical student at the University College of London, under the direction of professors there and at the University of Bristol. Importantly, the rate of stiffening by then was 9% higher than normal.
While differences were not detailed on a specific per-drink basis, the figures were similar for moderate drinkers, who typically downed four or fewer drinks in a go.
“There was some evidence of a graded increase with heavier usage, meaning that the more you drink, the greater the increase in arterial stiffness,” Walford says. “The relationship was not explained by other predisposing factors for heart disease, suggesting that risky behavior during this period has a direct effect on vascular health.”
Bottoms up to the bottom line
Walford’s study found increased arterial stiffness among young heavy smokers, too, but only in females.
His bottom line: “Heavy drinking and smoking in youth set someone on a life-course trajectory of early vascular aging, leading to earlier incidence of cardiovascular disease and death,” Walford tells me. Ceasing drinking and smoking “appears to negate arterial damage,” which “highlights the importance of quitting these bad habits as early as possible.”
But quitting is not so common, as you and I both know. Research finds that about 47% of alcoholics were already alcohol-dependent by age 21. Meanwhile, many of us adults are guilty of normalizing drinking, even heavy drinking, in behavior some kids will eventually emulate — perhaps much sooner than we’d hope.