If you read any health news, you’re constantly getting conflicting news about your alcohol consumption habits. One study will tell you moderate drinking will shorten your life, while another will say drinking helps your memory. And the truth is both of these things can be true because alcohol has different effects on different parts of the body, so what’s good for the mind may be bad for the body.
When it comes to life-threatening conditions like cancer, though, the science is pretty firmly decided: Too much drinking can greatly increase your risk. But new research suggests there may be a sweet spot.
In a paper published Tuesday in the journal PLOS Medicine, a team of researchers found that light drinkers have a lower lifetime risk of cancer or death than heavy drinkers. This is not super surprising, but their other finding may be. Light drinkers also had a slightly lower lifetime risk of cancer or death than non-drinkers and occasional drinkers. So the findings would seem to indicate that a light amount of drinking may actually have a protective effect on long-term health.
To be perfectly clear, when the researchers say “light,” they mean light. In this study, which tracked 99,654 older adults (55 to 74 years old) for an average of 8.9 years each, “light” drinking means between one and three drinks per week — an average of less than half a drink per day. For the study’s purposes, people who have less than one drink a week are considered “never or infrequent” drinkers, while those having between two and three a day are considered “heavy,” and those who have more than three a day are labeled “very heavy” drinkers.
The study’s authors, led by Andrew Kunzmann, a research fellow in the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, found that people who drank a lifetime average of between one and three drinks a week had a slightly lower risk of dying or getting cancer during the study period than their peers who drank either less than one drink a week or more than three drinks a week.
“We had expected light drinkers to be at a similar combined risk to never drinkers, so the reduced risk in light drinkers was surprising,” Kunzmann tells CNN. “The reasons for the reduced risk in light drinkers compared to never drinkers are still open to debate amongst the scientific community. Some have suggested that alcohol may have cardioprotective effects that may reduce risk of cardiovascular disease.”
The study’s authors point out that, by tracking both cancer and death in the paper, they found there’s only a very small benefit of light drinking over never drinking — an eight percent combined risk of cancer or death in light drinkers compared to a nine percent risk in never or infrequent drinkers. Heavy drinkers showed a 10 percent risk, while very heavy drinkers showed a 21 percent risk.
Taken altogether, these results suggest that drinking less is definitely better for your long-term health than drinking a lot, but the small differences between the groups at the bottom end of the spectrum suggest that further study will be necessary to really tease apart what is causing these differences. While we wait on those results, maybe just don’t get trashed every day… just to be on the safe side.