Just one to two drinks a day can increase risk of high blood pressure and stroke, a new study found, debunking the myth that moderate alcohol consumption could protect against those risks.
Published Thursday in the British medical journal The Lancet, the massive genetic study of 160,000 adults adds to growing research that alcohol can have lasting health implications.
Previous studies had suggested that moderate drinkers had a lower risk of stroke and heart attack compared to non-drinkers, the study authors said.
However, it was unknown if that was because the moderate drinking itself decreased the risk or if it was because non-drinkers had other health problems, the authors said.
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For stroke, the research now refutes the claim that moderate drinking can be protective.
“There are no protective effects of moderate alcohol intake against stroke. Even moderate alcohol consumption increases the chances of having a stroke,” Zhengming Chen of University of Oxford, one of the study’s co-authors, said in a statement. “The findings for heart attack were less clear-cut, so we plan to collect more evidence.”
Researchers conducted their study by looking at the group of Chinese adults, because of common genetic intolerance to alcohol in that population that stops many from drinking. Those intolerances aren’t linked to other lifestyle factors, like smoking, so they can explain how drinking causes these health effects – rather than just being associated with them, the authors said.
Four drinks a day increased stroke risk by 35% and no protective effects were found for light to moderate drinking, according to the research.
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“Using genetics is a novel way to assess the health effects of alcohol, and to sort out whether moderate drinking really is protective, or whether it’s slightly harmful. Our genetic analyses have helped us understand the cause-and-effect relationships,” Iona Millwood of University of Oxford, the study’s lead author, said in statement.
Alcohol is a leading risk factor for death and disease worldwide, a 2018 study by The Lancet found. The study found it is associated with 2.8 million deaths each year and the seventh-leading risk factor for premature death and disability globally in 2016.
From 2007 to 2017, the number of deaths attributable to alcohol increased 35 percent, according to an analysis by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. The death rate rose 24 percent.
Contributing: Jayne O’Donnell and Ashley May