New research from the University of Oxford reinforces what we’ve long believed: Drinking isn’t good for you.1 But how much is too much?
Let’s take a closer look at the effects alcohol has on the way your body ages…
These most recent findings are based on the largest ever study on the impacts of alcohol on our DNA and the tiny DNA endcaps that shorten with aging, called telomeres.
The study relied on data from the massive UK Biobank, analyzing 245,000 people aged 40 to 69 years. Three percent of participants were categorized as “never drinkers” and four percent “previous drinkers,” while the lion’s share – 93 percent – identified as “current drinkers.”
Does Alcohol Affect Telomere Length?
Researchers were keen on investigating whether any genetic markers might play a role in telomere length. In the observational analysis, they determined that alcohol does in fact shorten telomeres, a process which is detrimental to health and longevity.
What’s more, they determined that 29 units of alcohol per week was most damaging to telomere length.
But this begs the question, what the heck is an alcohol unit, anyway?
Well, in layman’s terms, 29 units is the equivalent to about ten, 250ml (8.5 ounces) glasses of wine per week. For beer drinkers, this equals about 17, 330ml-sized bottles at five percent ABV per week.
Even moderate drinkers were affected. But the association between alcohol consumption and telomere length was only significant among folks who drank more than 17 units per week which is about six or more glasses of wine or nine or more beers. So, special occasion drinkers shouldn’t worry too much.
Alcohol Shortens Telomeres and Lifespan
The research was clear that the more you drink the more likely you are to suffer DNA damage linked to shorter telomeres. The team conclude that the damage to telomeres from drinking 29 units or more each week can shorten your lifespan by up to six years!
This isn’t the first study to link shorter telomeres to illness and premature death. Many previous studies have linked shorter telomeres to a shorter lifespan and age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
Other research suggests that telomere length is a better predictor of lifespan than chronological age.2 Of course, everyone’s telomeres shorten naturally with each passing year. And you know what speeds up the process? Unhealthy lifestyle habits such as poor diet, smoking and, yes, drinking alcohol.3
Still, researchers say telomeres aren’t the whole story when it comes to the way alcohol ages your body. Alcohol has been linked to everything from dehydration to neurological changes in the brain and liver damage.
“Our hypothesis is that, in the breakdown of ethanol (the main ingredient of alcohol), free radicals (unstable molecules that damage DNA) are produced,” says lead author Anya Topiwala. “As a double whammy, alcohol reduces antioxidants — the natural defense mechanism for free radicals.”
The good news?
A Drop in Consumption Makes a Big Difference
Researchers found that even small drops in consumption in the heaviest drinkers can significantly lower their health risks.
“Our results provide another piece of information for clinicians and patients seeking to reduce the harmful effects of excess alcohol,” says Dr. Topiwala, a psychiatrist at the University of Oxford and lead author of the new paper.
It turns out that the fountain of youth we all yearn for is not flowing with booze. That’s why I’m heartened to see the growing trend which encourages people to be more mindful of their alcohol consumption. Studies show that cutting out alcohol completely, even temporarily, is a benefit to the body.4
What’s more, experts say healthy living can slow down telomere shortening. Stress reduction correlates with longer telomeres.5 As does sleep, exercise and good nutrition.
Consider other ways to relax and celebrate. Fortunately, there are plenty of non-alcoholic beer, wine and cocktail alternatives that taste like the real deal.
And, finally, if you or a loved one is drinking too much, don’t be afraid to seek help. It’s never too late to make lifestyle changes that can help your health.
- American Heart Association. Drinking red wine for heart health? Read this before your next toast.