How Often You Drink Matters as Much as How Much You Drink
The science behind alcohol consumption is all over the place. Of course there is much evidence to support its benefits, while other research points to its destructive outcomes. One relatively recent study hones in on the latter, suggesting that moderate drinking may not be good for you after all, and may increase your risk of early death. 
Researchers report in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research that drinking “lightly” – having 1-2 drinks per sitting – 4 or more times a week may increase your risk of early death, even though that amount of drinking is consistent with federal guidelines. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other federal agencies define “moderate drinking” as no more than 1 drink per day for women or 2 for men.
The authors of the study wrote that those who drank 4 or more times per week during the study period increased their risk of early death by approximately 20%, compared to those who imbibed 3 or fewer times per week.
Dr. Sarah Hartz, study co-author and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said:
“The cutoff seems to be that we shouldn’t drink more than 3 times per week. The frequency of drinking does matter, in the same way that taking a medicine matters. If you take a medicine once a week, it impacts you differently than if you take medicine every day.”
If you’re drinking a glass of wine and feeling confused right now, well, we don’t blame you.
In August, a large research review was published in The Lancet showing that, overall, it’s best not to drink at all. The research pointed to a slew of reasons why alcohol should be avoided, including auto accidents and cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), alcohol is linked to cancers of the:
- Throat (pharynx)
- Voice box (larynx)
Hartz said the change in drinking recommendations have been a long time coming.
“There’s an accumulation of evidence that’s starting to turn people toward that belief. It’s kind of against the ‘glass of red wine a day’ recommendation.”
‘The Risks Outweigh the Potential Benefits’
Previous studies have suggested that drinking red wine slashes a person’s risk of breast cancer. Red wine was believed to be the exception to the rule when it came to drinking because of its high levels of resveratrol, an antioxidant found to inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells.
But alcohol causes 5% of deaths worldwide, according to a report recently released by the World Health Organization (WHO). The global health watchdog’s report shows that people in their 20’s were most affected by alcohol-related deaths, many of them the result of car accidents or suicides. The report also cited digestive disorders, cardiovascular disease, infectious diseases, cancers, mental illness, and other disorders. 
Ultimately, the risks associated with drinking might just outweigh any benefits.
Hartz said: 
“It used to seem like having 1 or 2 drinks per day was no big deal, and there even have been some studies suggesting it can improve health. But now we know that even the lightest daily drinkers have an increased mortality risk.”
Changing Attitudes About Drinking
The team reached their conclusion after analyzing data from the National Health Interview Study (NHIS), which was representative of the total U.S. population, as well as medical records from Veterans Health Administration (VHS) patients, which provided a snapshot of the drinking habits of mostly older males.
In total, the researchers looked at health, diet, and drinking information from almost 435,000 people ages 18 to 85 years old. The subjects’ health and survival were tracked for an average of 7-10 years. 
Roughly 40% of the NHIS sample said they didn’t drink, or they used to drink, but they stopped. About 86% of those who described themselves as current drinkers said they only consumed 1-2 drinks per sitting, regardless of how often they drank.
This was the level of drinking the researchers chose to focus on because it is commonly believed to safe and even beneficial, whereas heavy drinking is not. But the findings suggest that this level of drinking may come with health hazards.
In the NHIS group, consuming 1-2 drinks per week was associated with the lowest overall risk of mortality. This was the case, even when researchers compared the group to those who drank less. However, each additional drinking session beyond that point increased the risk of early death, the study showed. A similar trajectory was seen in the VHA group.
The researchers did find some heart-health benefits associated with drinking in the study. But because any amount of drinking increases the risk of cancer, a physician would likely have different recommendations for people with a family history of heart disease versus cancer.
What to Make of the Findings
Should people quit drinking? Probably. Will they? Most people probably won’t. And if you like a beer or a glass of wine with dinner, you can keep enjoying your adult beverages. The risks associated with drinking aren’t as immediately dire as they are with smoking. But Hartz says drinkers shouldn’t fool themselves by repeating the mantra that alcohol has purported health benefits.
Eating cake is bad for you, but most people aren’t going to go the rest of their lives without eating any.
“I drink recreationally, and my main take-home is that I can’t think of it as a healthy behavior. This isn’t like smoking, where you should immediately quit. It’s bad for you, but we do a lot of things that are bad for us. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking this is a healthy behavior.”
The less you drink, and the more infrequently you drink, the better. If you are a casual drinker or like to enjoy yourself with some alcohol, don’t stress about it, enjoy yourself and don’t stress about it.
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.