Drinking alcohol poses serious health risks and has no benefits for young people

A new study has found that young people (those under 40) face greater health risks from alcohol than older adults.

  • A new analysis of Global Disease estimates that 1.34 billion people (1.03 billion men and 0.312 billion women) drank harmful alcohol in 2020.
  • The analysis shows that for young people aged 15-39, drinking alcohol has no health benefits, only health risks. In 2020, 59.1% of people who drink dangerous amounts of alcohol are 15-39 years old and 76.7% are men.
  • Given the complex relationship between alcohol and disease and the different background rates of disease worldwide, the risks of alcohol consumption vary by age and geographic location, the authors note.
  • The health risks of drinking alcohol vary by age and region for adults over 40. For people in this age group, consuming small amounts of alcohol (eg, drinking one to two glasses of 3.4-ounce red wine) may have some health benefits. , such as reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes.
  • Researchers are calling for a review of alcohol consumption guidelines for age-specific high consumption levels. They point out that the rate of alcohol consumption for young people in all regions is very high. They also call for policies aimed at men under 40 who use alcohol harmfully.

According to a new analysis published in

Using estimates of alcohol consumption from 204 countries, the researchers estimated that 1.34 billion people worldwide consumed harmful amounts in 2020. In every region, the largest proportion of the population who drank dangerously high levels of alcohol were 15-39 year olds. For people of this age, drinking alcohol has no health benefits and poses many health risks. In addition, 60% of alcohol-related injuries are among this age group, including motor vehicle accidents, suicides, and homicides.

“Our message is simple: young people shouldn’t drink, but older people may benefit from moderate drinking. Although it is unrealistic to assume that young adults will stop drinking, we believe it is important to provide the latest evidence so that everyone can make informed decisions about their own health,” said senior author Dr. Emmanuela Gakidou, Professor of Health Metrics at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) Lancet alcohol consumption infographic

While alcohol consumption poses serious health risks to young people, moderate amounts may be beneficial for some older adults. Recommendations on how much to drink should be based on age and local disease rates, new analysis suggests. Credit: The Lancet

Age and region should implement alcohol consumption policy

Researchers looked at the risk of alcohol consumption for 22 health conditions, including injuries, cardiovascular disease and cancer.[3] 204 countries and territories using the 2020 Global Burden of Disease for men and women aged 15-95 years and older, 1990-2020. Because of this, the researchers were able to calculate the average daily consumption of alcohol, which reduces the risk of the population. The study also calculates another critical number – how much alcohol a person can drink before it becomes dangerous to their health compared to a non-drinker.

The recommended amount of alcohol for people aged 15-39 at risk of ill health was 0.136 standard drinks per day (just over a tenth of a standard drink). This amount was slightly higher than 0.273 drinks for women aged 15-39 (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 (100 ml or 3.4 fl oz) at 13% alcohol by volume, a can or bottle of beer (375 ml or 12 fl oz) by volume at 3, 5% alcohol or whiskey or other spirits (30 ml or 1.0 fluid ounces) 40% alcohol by volume.[1]

The analysis also shows that for people aged 40 and older, with no underlying health conditions, drinking small amounts of alcohol may have some benefits, including reducing the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Overall, safe alcohol consumption levels for people aged 40-64 in 2020 ranged from about half a standard drink per day (0.527 standard drinks for men and 0.562 standard drinks for women) to almost two standard drinks (1.69 standard drinks) per day. days for men, 1.82 for women). In 2020, for people over 65 years of age, the risk of ill-health due to alcohol consumption reached just over three standard drinks per day (3.19 drinks for men and 3.51 for women). Estimates suggest that moderate alcohol consumption in populations over 40 may be associated with improved health, particularly in populations with cardiovascular disease.

The distribution of the burden of disease for a given age group varied significantly by region, leading to variation in the risk of alcohol consumption, particularly among those aged 40 years and older. For example, among people aged 55-59 in North Africa and the Middle East, 30.7% of alcohol-related health risks were due to cardiovascular disease, 12.6% to cancer, and less than 1% to tuberculosis. Conversely, in the same age group in sub-Saharan Africa, 20% of alcohol-related health risks were due to cardiovascular disease, 9.8% to cancer, and 10.1% to tuberculosis. As a result, consumption levels for people in this age group at risk of health loss were 0.876 drinks (or almost one drink per day) in North Africa and the Middle East and 0.596 drinks (half a standard drink per day) in central sub-Saharan Africa. Africa.

Overall, the recommended alcohol intake for adults remains low, between 0 and 1.87 standard drinks per day, regardless of geography, age, gender, and year.

“Even if a conservative approach is taken and a minimum level of safe consumption is used to set policy recommendations, this means that the recommended level of alcohol consumption is still too high for the young population. Based on currently available evidence, our predictions support age- and region-specific guidelines. “Understanding changes in alcohol consumption levels that minimize population health risks can help create effective consumption guidelines, support alcohol control policies, monitor progress in reducing harmful alcohol use, and develop public health risk messages,” says the author. Dana Bryazka, IHME researcher.

Young men are at risk of harmful alcohol consumption

Using these estimates, the share of alcohol consumption exceeding this limit by place of residence, age, gender and year of the population is also calculated, and it is the target direction of activities on alcohol control.

In 2020, 59.1% of people who drank harmful amounts of alcohol were 15-39 years old, 76.7% were men, 1.03 billion men and 0.312 billion women drank harmful amounts of alcohol. Harmful alcohol use was particularly high among young men in Australia, Western Europe and Central Europe.

“While the risks associated with alcohol consumption are similar for men and women, young men have the highest rates of alcohol consumption. This is because, compared to women, most of the bad people drink alcohol, and their average consumption level is much higher,” says Dr. Gakidou.

The authors acknowledge that this paper has some limitations, including that drinking patterns were not examined. Therefore, this study did not differentiate between individuals who engaged in infrequent episodic drinking and those who consumed the same amount of alcohol over several days. Alcohol consumption was also self-reported, which may have introduced bias and could not capture data on consumption during the study.[{” attribute=””>COVID-19 pandemic due to pandemic-related delays with routine data collection, which could also have affected these estimates.

Writing in a linked Comment, Robyn Burton and Nick Sheron of King’s College London (who were not involved in the study) say, “These findings seemingly contradict a previous GBD estimate published in The Lancet, which emphasized that any alcohol use, regardless of amount, leads to health loss across populations. There are three main differences between the two GBD publications. First, the most recent study uses data from 2020 instead of 2016. Second, the relative risk curves for five alcohol-related outcomes have been updated. However, neither of these changes is driving the differences in results. Instead, the differences are due to the novel method of weighting relative risk curves according to levels of underlying disease, alongside the calculation of more disaggregated estimates by sex, age, and geographical region. The causes that contribute to all-cause mortality vary across groups, and this changes the proportional risk of alcohol on mortality. Across most geographical regions in this latest analysis, injuries accounted for most alcohol-related harm in younger age groups. This led to a minimum risk level of zero, or very close to zero, among individuals aged 15–39 years across all geographical regions. This is lower than the level estimated for older adults, due to a shift in alcohol-related disease burden toward cardiovascular disease and cancers. This highlights the need to consider existing rates of disease in a population when trying to determine the total harm posed by alcohol.”


This study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A full list of GBD 2020 Alcohol Collaborators is available in the paper.

[1] One standard drink is defined as 10 grams of pure alcohol. Examples include:

  • A small glass of red wine (100 ml or 3.4 fl oz) is 13% alcohol by volume;
  • One can or bottle of beer (375 ml or 12 fluid ounces) is 3.5% alcohol by volume;
  • Whiskey or other spirits with 40% alcohol by volume (30 mL or 1.0 fluid ounces).

[2] Quoted directly from the author and not found in the text of the article.

[3] These health issues include:

  • Ischemic stroke, cerebral hemorrhage, ischemic heart disease, hypertensive heart disease, atrial fibrillation and flutter;
  • Cancer, including: lip and oral cavity cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer, other pharyngeal cancer, esophagus cancer, larynx cancer, colon and rectal cancer, breast cancer, liver cancer;
  • Type 2 diabetes, cirrhosis and other chronic liver diseases, pancreatitis, idiopathic epilepsy, tuberculosis;
  • Traffic injuries, unintentional injuries, self-harm and interpersonal violence.

Reference: “Population-level alcohol consumption risks by population, geography, age, sex, and year: A systematic review for the Global Incidence Survey 2020” by the GBD 2020 Alcohol Collaborators, 16 July 2022. The Lancet.
DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(22)00847-9

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