Many health risks of alcohol consumption are known. Now a team of British scientists believes that alcohol consumption also causes you to age faster.
“If alcohol were invented today, it would be illegal in all countries,” British psychopharmacology professor David Nutt said in an interview with KIJK last year. It is a frequently heard argument from people who advocate the inclusion of alcohol in drug policy.
Excessive drinking damages organs such as liver, heart and brain. Moderate drinking already increases the risk of heart arrhythmias and there is now a long list of cancers linked to alcohol consumption. And now a large-scale study conducted by scientists from Oxford has also found evidence that alcohol makes you age faster.
The Oxford team examined the association between alcohol intake and telomere length in more than 245,000 participants enrolled in the UK Biobank. Telomeres are the ends of the chromosomes (where our DNA is stored); they protect the chromosomes from damage. Because telomeres shorten slightly with each cell division, scientists consider them an indicator of biological aging. Once telomeres become too short, cells can no longer divide and may even die.
“The Oxford study into the relationship between alcohol consumption and telomere length is not the first,” says Frans Russel of Radboud UMC, “but it is the largest observational analysis to date with no fewer than 245,000 participants.” Previous studies have linked shorter telomeres to several diseases related to aging, including Alzheimer’s, cancer and certain heart diseases.
10 glasses a week
To investigate a possible link, the team used Mendelian randomization. This genetic technique looks at variations in certain genes to determine the influence of risk factors on a disease. In this case, genes that have previously been linked to alcohol consumption and alcohol use disorders.
The scientists thus found a clear link between high alcohol intake and shorter telomeres. Those who drank 32 units of alcohol (ten to 11 glasses of wine) per week showed a shortening of the telomere equivalent to approximately three years of aging – compared to people who drank 10 units of alcohol.
“The main conclusion of the study is that a significant association was only found between high alcohol intake (ten glasses or more per week, then according to many guidelines you have an alcohol problem) and shorter telomere length,” notes Russel. “So there seems to be a (high) threshold value.”
A few notes
Nevertheless, according to Russel, there are some caveats to be made about the conclusions of the Oxford study. For example, telomere length is measured in white blood cells. “But it’s not clear whether this is also representative of other organ tissues, such as the liver and brain.” This is also mentioned by the researchers themselves as a limitation of the study.
“Secondly,” continues the professor of pharmacology and toxicology, “telomere length is seen as an indicator of aging, but this is increasingly being discussed. Recent research results indicate that it is only a rough estimate of the aging rate, and thus can be considered limited as a clinically important risk marker for age-related disease and mortality.”
Finally, you may wonder how bad the faster aging due to high alcohol intake is, if the behavior also leads to a greatly increased risk of some forms of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Russel: “Life expectancy will probably be much shorter due to the risk of these serious diseases due to excessive alcohol consumption than faster aging based on shorter telomeres.”
Cut down on
In the meantime, the researchers hope to convince as many people as possible to thoroughly analyze their drinking. “The alcohol dose is important – drinking less can already have benefits,” said lead researcher Anya Topiwala.
For those who want to try the latter, Nutt has some tips. For example, if you drink wine with a meal as a couple, never open a second bottle. “And buy the most expensive drink you can afford. With a bottle of wine for 50 euros you enjoy the taste of every mouthful. You probably don’t even take a mouthful, you sip. While you just clock away a bottle of 5 euros.”
Sources: Molecular Psychiatry, Oxford University, New Atlas