Young people face higher health risks from alcohol consumption than older adults, according to a global study published in The Lancet journal on Friday. This is the first study to report alcohol risk by geographical region, age, sex, and year.

It suggests that global alcohol consumption recommendations should be based on age and location, with the strictest guidelines targeted towards males between ages 15-39, who are at the greatest risk of harmful alcohol consumption worldwide.

The study also suggests that adults aged 40 and older without underlying health conditions may see some benefits from small alcohol consumption — between one and two standard drinks per day — including a reduced risk in cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Using estimates of alcohol use in 204 countries, researchers calculated that 1.34 billion people consumed harmful amounts in 2020. In every region, the largest segment of the population drinking unsafe amounts of alcohol were males aged 15-39 and for this age group, drinking alcohol does not provide any health benefits and presents many health risks, the researchers said.

Harmful impact

About 60 per cent of alcohol-related injuries occur among people in this age group, including motor vehicle accidents, suicides, and homicides, they said. "Our message is simple: young people should not drink, but older people may benefit from drinking small amounts,” said study senior author Emmanuela Gakidou, a professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, US.

"While it may not be realistic to think young adults will abstain from drinking, we do think it is important to communicate the latest evidence so that everyone can make informed decisions about their health," Gakidou said.

The researchers looked at the risk of alcohol consumption on 22 health outcomes, including injuries, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers using 2020 Global Burden of Disease data for males and females aged 15-95 years and older between 1990 and 2020, in 204 countries and territories.

From this, the researchers were able to estimate the average daily intake of alcohol that minimises risk to a population. The study also estimates how much alcohol a person can drink before taking on excess risk to their health compared to someone who does not drink any alcohol.

Recommended amount

The recommended amount of alcohol for people aged 15-39 before risking health loss was 0.136 standard drinks per day — a little more than one-tenth of a standard drink, according to the researchers. That amount was slightly higher for females aged 15-39 years at 0.273 drinks — about a quarter of a standard drink per day.

One standard drink is defined as 10 grams of pure alcohol, which is equivalent to a small glass of red wine (100ml) at 13 per cent alcohol by volume, a can or bottle of beer (375 ml) at 3.5 per cent alcohol by volume, or a shot of whiskey or other spirits (30 ml) at 40 per cent alcohol by volume.

The analysis also suggests that for adults aged 40 and older without any underlying health conditions, drinking a small amount of alcohol may provide some benefits, such as reducing the risk of ischemic heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, the researchers said.

Safe consumption levels

In general, for individuals aged 40-64 years in 2020, safe alcohol consumption levels ranged from about half a standard drink per day (0.527 drinks for males and 0.562 standard drinks per day for females) to almost two standard drinks (1.69 standard drinks per day for males and 1.82 for females), they said.

For individuals over 65 years in 2020, the risks of health loss from alcohol consumption were reached after consuming a little more than three standard drinks per day (3.19 drinks for males and 3.51 for females). The estimates suggest that small amounts of alcohol consumption in populations over 40 without underlying conditions may be associated with improved health outcomes, particularly those facing a higher burden of cardiovascular diseases.