The study, conducted by University College London researchers, determined moderate alcohol consumption — roughly three pints of beer a day for men, and two glasses of wine for women — produced a "protective effect" in respect of major clinical outcomes such as myocardial infarction, ischaemic stroke, sudden coronary death, heart failure, peripheral arterial disease, and abdominal aortic aneurysm.
The notion alcohol offers imbibers health benefits is nothing new — a 2008 metastudy by Sheffield University concluded four out of five studies into the question showed moderate drinking correlated with a reduction in mortality, with "moderate" defined as. Likewise, previous research has also indicated teetotallers may well be at greater risk of contracting heart disease than casual drinkers.
However, health and sobriety campaigners in the UK have long battled such suggestions and found a sympathetic ear in the shape of Dame Sally Davies, the UK's Chief Medical Officer. In January 2016, Davies controversially declared there was "no safe level" of drinking, citing a contested medical review, which suggested samples of teetotallers in studies of alcohol's health impact included former drinkers, already "damaged" by years of drinking. The government significantly reduced its recommended weekly alcohol unit intake as a result.
The UCL research effectively demolishes such complaints by separating former drinkers from lifelong straight edgers. Through examination of 1.93 million individuals' health records, the study's authors concluded that non-drinking was associated with an increased risk of unstable angina, myocardial infarction, unheralded coronary death, heart failure, ischaemic stroke, peripheral arterial disease, and abdominal aortic aneurysm compared with moderate drinking. Heavy drinking, ie consumption exceeding guidelines, conferred an increased risk of unheralded coronary death, heart failure, cardiac arrest, transient ischaemic attack, ischaemic stroke, intracerebral haemorrhage, and peripheral arterial disease, but a lower risk of myocardial infarction or stable angina.
The UCL paper means now over 80 studies have reached the same conclusion on alcohol risk — the risk of total abstinence is higher than moderate consumption, then increases as consumption increases. Nonetheless, perhaps due to the "welcome" that has received previous studies offering similar conclusions, the authors stop short of recommending official guidelines on alcohol consumption are updated — although, they do suggest health authorities adopt a more "nuanced" tone on drinking.
Response from health charities has indeed been lukewarm, with the British Heart Foundation saying in a statement that the risks of drinking alcohol "far outweighed" any possible benefits.
"These findings are certainly no reason to start drinking alcohol if you don't already. There are far more effective ways of improving your heart health such as regular exercise, a good diet and quitting smoking. If you're over 40 you should also consider a free NHS health check, to better understand your risk of heart disease and the steps you can take to lower it."
The BHF spokesperson added that one limitation of the study, which the researchers themselves acknowledged, was their data was based on self-reported levels of alcohol drinking, which may not always be accurate.
"A strength of the study is that previous research has mostly focused on heart attack or stroke, and this research looked at 12 cardiovascular diseases. However, there are some heart and circulatory conditions that weren't included in the research."