Research from the University of Cambridge and the British Heart Foundation, which looked at 600,000 drinkers across the world, discovered that anything more than five glasses of wine, or pints of beer, is dangerous to health, and could be knocking years off a person’s lifespan.
The authors calculated that having 10 or more drinks per week was associated with up to two years shorter life expectancy, which equates to losing 15 minutes of life for each unit above the safe amount, the equivalent of smoking a cigarette.
Dr Angela Wood, from the University of Cambridge, 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.”
On the advice of Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies, Britain lowered guidelines in 2016 recommending that both men and women should drink no more han 14 units of alcohol each week. Prior to that the men were advised no more than 28 units and women 21.
However the new study suggests the upper safe limit of drinking was about five drinks per week, the equivalent of 12.5 units or just over five pints of four per cent beer, or five 175ml glasses of 13 per cent wine.
The researchers found that drinking more than that was associated with a higher risk of stroke, heart failure, fatal aneurysms and fatal hypertensive disease.
It challenges the widely held belief that moderate drinking is beneficial to cardiovascular health.
Commenting on the study Prof David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk, at the University of Cambridge, said: “This is a massive and very impressive study.
“The paper estimates a 40-year-old drinking four units a day above the guidelines has roughly two years lower life expectancy, which is around a twentieth of their remaining life.
“This works out at about an hour per day. So it’s as if each unit above guidelines is taking, on average, about 15 minutes of life, about the same as a cigarette.”
Research from the Office for National Statistics last year found that 7.8 million people admit to binging on alcohol with those earning in excess of £40,000 more likely to consume dangerous amounts.
Victoria Taylor, Senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation said: “Many people in the UK regularly drink over what’s recommended.
“We should always remember that alcohol guidelines should act as a limit, not a target, and try to drink well below this threshold.”
Experts said that the report, which was published in The Lancet, should be a wake up call to the baby boomer generation who regularly drink too much and are at risk of seriously shortening their lives.
Official figures show a tripling in alcohol-related hospital admissions among those aged between 55 and 74, over the last decade.
They now make up 45 per cent of such cases, with more than 500,000 admissions in 2015/16, while the proportion of cases involving younger drinkers has dramatically fallen.
Dr Tony Rao, Visiting Lecturer in Old Age Psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, said: “The strength of this study is its follow-up of large numbers of people without evidence of pre-existing cardiovascular disease, so it is likely to be relevant to the population at large.”
“It also highlights the need to reduce alcohol related harm in baby boomers, an age group currently at highest risk of rising alcohol misuse”.
Prof Tim Chico, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and Honorary Consultant Cardiologist, University of Sheffield, added: “As expected, the more alcohol someone drinks, the greater the increased risk of early death.
“I would not be surprised if the heaviest drinkers lost as many years of life as a smoker.”
The study focused on current drinkers to reduce the risk of bias caused by those who abstain from alcohol due to poor health, which in the past has skewed results to make it appear that moderate drinking is beneficial.
The Department of Health and Chief Medical Officer declined to comment on the findings.