The drop in life expectancy for a 40-year-old who drinks between 100 and 200 grams is six months, on average, compared with someone who drinks between zero and 100 grams, the study found. Drinking 200 to 350 grams was associated with a one- to two-year decline in life expectancy, and drinking more than 350 grams corresponded to a four- to five-year drop, on average. Two years ago, the United Kingdom revised its moderate-drinking guidelines, reducing the limits for men to the same level as those for women. Some countries have much higher ceilings. For instance, Spain and Romania set the upper limit for men at the equivalent of 20 drinks each week.
There's a transatlantic difference of opinion about drinking limits for men and women.
The British Heart Foundation (BHF) has said the Lancet study seemed to "broadly reinforce" government guidelines in the UK.
Analysis shows that approximately half of all drinkers go over the weekly recommended limit in the 19 high-income countries studied, while nearly one-in-ten people drink more than the equivalent of 21 pints of beer a week.
Alcohol consumption was found to be associated with a lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks but researchers point out that this must be weighed against increased risk of potentially fatal heart disease.
"This study makes clear that on balance there are no health benefits from drinking alcohol, which is usually the case when things sound too good to be true", Tim Chico, professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Sheffield, who was not involved in the research said.
"However, this gain in life expectancy is only seen when alcohol consumption is below 100 grams per week".
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Alcohol guidelines vary substantially from country to country. Yeap suggests that the best amount that can be safely taken is less than 100 grams of alcohol per week. This equates to around six pints of 4 per cent strength beer or six 175ml glasses of 13 per cent wine.
Drinking more alcohol was also linked to stroke, heart failure, and fatal aneurysm risk. That may partly reflect that alcohol can elevate blood pressure and alter cholesterol levels, the researchers said. For example, having 10 or more drinks per week was linked with 1-2 years shorter life expectancy.
Dr Angela Wood, from the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study, said: "The key message of this research is that, if you already drink alcohol, drinking less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditions".
The study may mean many Americans are reaching their weekly totals in one night.
Researchers relied on what participants reported drinking at the start, recognizing that many people may be lowballing how much they actually down. The new study confirmed an association between drinking and cancers of the digestive system.
At O'Hara's Restaurant and Pub in lower Manhattan, one patron shrugged off the study and its recommendation.