Bad Booze

Early aging and more: 5 surprising ways alcohol harms health

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Science is pretty unified on the effects of heavy or frequent drinking: It’s terrible for the body and brain, and raises risk factors for conditions like heart failure and stroke.

But what about moderate drinking? In the U.S., this generally refers to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.

For this kind of casual imbibing, the story is a bit different.

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Some studies suggest drinking moderately might be associated with some protective effects.

However, other research argues that no amount of alcohol is beneficial to the body.

Scientists are still split when it comes to the risks — and potential benefits — of moderate alcohol consumption.

But, critically, recent research suggests even a little alcohol can negatively impact the body in unexpected ways.

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Here are 5 surprising negative effects moderate drinking can have on the body:

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5. Early Aging

Heavy drinking and smoking can cause people to look older than they are. But your organs — specifically your heart — can age due to alcohol consumption, no matter how much you drink.

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Research presented on August 23 at the European Society of Cardiology’s annual meeting revealed the arteries of people who drank as teens aged faster than those who didn’t.

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As you get older, your arteries naturally harden and become less elastic — a feature that’s associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

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Even with moderate drinking, researchers observed an increase in atrial stiffening in 17 to 24-year-olds.

But the effects do seem to get worse as alcohol intake goes up.

“There was some evidence of a graded increase with heavier usage, meaning that the more you drink, the greater the increase in arterial stiffness.”

Hugo Walford, study author and researcher at the University College London

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4. High Blood Pressure

A 2019 study of 17,000 adults found even moderate alcohol consumption can raise your risk of hypertension.

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This study defined moderate intake as having seven to 13 drinks per week. These moderate drinkers were 53 percent more likely to have stage 1 hypertension than their non-drinking peers, and twice as likely to have stage 2.

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However, some studies have found the opposite effect — that you can actually protect yourself from certain heart conditions with moderate alcohol consumption.

What makes a difference, one 2018 study found, is consistent drinking.

It’s actually unstable drinking patterns — like drinking one glass of wine every night for years and then quitting cold turkey then drinking every night again — that can seemingly raise your risk of cardiovascular disease.

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3. Heightened cancer risk

A study from the World Health Organization published in July 2021 suggests heavy and moderate drinkers are at higher risk for certain cancers.

Harvard Medical School

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Alcohol is known to mess with DNA’s ability to repair itself, paving the way for mutations.

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Moderate drinkers, who in this study had up to two drinks per day, were diagnosed with an estimated 1 out of 7 new cancer cases in 2020.

Here’s a breakdown of cancers that study participants, based in Canada, were diagnosed with.World Health Organization's (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)

2. Brain damage

It’s no secret that a night of heavy drinking can leave gaps in your memory. But even moderate drinking can have negative effects on cognition, a 2020 study found.

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Scientists found moderate drinking can lead to decreased brain volume in middle age.

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Decreased brain volume means a loss of cells and neurons in the brain that can set the stage for conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Another study observed that moderate drinking (14 to 21 drinks per week) can lead to a steeper decline in cognition over time.

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The researchers also found no evidence of a protective effect on the brain between light drinking (7 drinks per week) and no drinking at all.

1. Virtually ... Everything?

Now for the really bad news: Some researchers say there’s really no safe amount of alcohol that can be consumed if you want to avoid adverse health effects.

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This sentiment was echoed by scientists after the publication of a 2018 report in the research journal The Lancet.

It suggests even 1 drink per day is associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality.

“Each individual can decide what they think that acceptable risk is, but there’s no free lunch, or free drink, so to speak.”

Dr. Max Griswold, lead study author and senior researcher at the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics

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Read more stories about health here.

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