Drinking a glass of wine or a bottle of beer a night could slash your risk of an early death by a fifth.
Moderate drinking – defined as up to seven drinks a week for women and 14 for men – significantly cuts the risk of dying from heart disease and other problems, a study has found.
The research, conducted among more than 300,000 Americans, directly contradicts official guidance published by the British chief medical officer.
Dame Sally Davies has stated there is ‘no safe level’ of drinking.
But while some evidence suggests drinking any amount may increase the risk of certain cancers, experts last night said the benefits to the heart ‘clearly outweigh’ these risks, particularly among the elderly.
Scientists from the University of Texas and Shandong University in China tracked 333,247 Americans for an average of 8.2 years.
They defined a ‘moderate’ drinker as a woman who drank up to seven ‘standard’ drinks a week – equivalent to a 140ml glass of 12 per cent-strength wine or a 340ml bottle of 5 per cent beer – and a man who consumed 14 drinks.
Moderate drinkers were 22 per cent less likely to die over the study period than those who had abstained from alcohol all their lives. Moderate alcohol consumption seemed to be particularly protective of the heart, with deaths from cardiovascular disease slashed by 29 per cent.
Researchers stressed there was a ‘delicate balance’ between the benefits and dangers of alcohol, and if people regularly consumed too much, drinking could rapidly switch from benefiting health to damaging it. Those who consumed more than the ‘moderate’ threshold were 11 per cent more likely to die than lifelong teetotallers.
Among heavy drinkers the risk of cancer was particularly pronounced, with an increased cancer death risk of 27 per cent compared to abstainers.
The study was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Researchers suspect the benefits of moderate drinking are linked to the antioxidants in alcoholic drinks, an increase in ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, and alcohol’s ability to reduce damaging inflammation in the body.
Lead author professor Bo Xi said: ‘Light-to-moderate drinking might have some protective effects against cardiovascular disease, while heavy drinking can lead to death. A delicate balance exists between the beneficial and detrimental effects of alcohol consumption, which should be stressed to consumers and patients.’
Previous studies with similar conclusions had been dismissed because other experts said they had been skewed by sick participants who had abstained from alcohol because of existing health conditions. Critics had also claimed middle-class people, who generally have better health, were more likely to drink moderately than the poor, again skewing the results of previous studies.
But the researchers behind the latest study claim to have dealt with these concerns by comparing drinkers only to people who were lifelong abstainers, and by adjusting for socio-economic factors.
British health authorities last night continued to warn against the risks of drinking. Rosanna O’Connor, of Public Health England, said: ‘Consuming alcohol excessively contributes to a vast number of other serious disease.