Drinking Alcohol Carries Significant Health Risks and No Benefits for Young Adults

Man Refusing Beer No Alcohol

A new study finds that young people (under age 40) face higher health risks from alcohol consumption than older adults.

  • Global Burden of Disease’s new analysis estimates that 1.34 billion people consumed harmful amounts of alcohol (1.03 billion males and 0.312 billion females) in 2020.
  • The analysis suggests that for young adults ages 15-39, there are no health benefits to drinking alcohol, only health risks. 59.1% of people who consumed unsafe amounts of alcohol in 2020 were between ages 15-39 years and 76.7% were male.
  • Given the complex relationship between alcohol and diseases and different background rates of diseases across the world, the risks of alcohol consumption differ by age and by geographic location, the authors note.
  • Health risks from alcohol consumption vary by age and region for adults over age 40. Consuming a small amount of alcohol (for example, drinking between one and two 3.4-ounce glasses of red wine) for people in this age group can provide some health benefits, such as reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes.
  • Researchers call for alcohol consumption guidelines to be revised to emphasize consumption levels by age. They stress that the level of alcohol consumption recommended by many existing guidelines is too high for young people in all regions. They also call for policies targeting males under age 40, who are most likely to use alcohol harmfully.

According to a new analysis published in

The Lancet Alcohol Consumption Infographic

Drinking alcohol has significant health risks for young people, small amounts may be beneficial for some older adults. New analysis suggests that recommendations for how much one can drink should be based on age and local disease rates. Credit: The Lancet

Age and region should drive alcohol consumption policies

The researchers looked at the risk of alcohol consumption on 22 health outcomes, including injuries, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers[3] using 2020 Global Burden of Disease data for males and females aged 15-95 years and older between 1990 and 2020, in 204 countries and territories. From this, the researchers were able to estimate the average daily intake of alcohol that minimizes risk to a population. The study also estimates another critical quantity—how much alcohol a person can drink before taking on excess risk to their health compared to someone who does not drink any alcohol.

The recommended amount of alcohol for people aged 15-39 before risking health loss was 0.136 standard drinks per day (a little more than one-tenth of a standard drink). That amount was slightly higher for females aged 15-39 years at 0.273 drinks (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 (100ml or 3.4 fluid ounces) at 13% alcohol by volume, a can or bottle of beer (375 ml or 12 fluid ounces) at 3.5% alcohol by volume, or a shot of whiskey or other spirits (30 ml or 1.0 fluid ounces) at 40% alcohol by volume.[1]

The analysis also suggests that for adults aged 40 and older without any underlying health conditions, drinking a small amount of alcohol may provide some benefits, such as reducing the risk of ischemic heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. In general, for individuals aged 40-64 years in 2020, safe alcohol consumption levels ranged from about half a standard drink per day (0.527 drinks for males and 0.562 standard drinks per day for females) to almost two standard drinks (1.69 standard drinks per day for males and 1.82 for females). For individuals over 65 years in 2020, the risks of health loss from alcohol consumption were reached after consuming a little more than three standard drinks per day (3.19 drinks for males and 3.51 for females). The estimates suggest that small amounts of alcohol consumption in populations over 40 without underlying conditions may be associated with improved health outcomes, particularly in populations that predominantly face a higher burden of cardiovascular diseases.

The distribution of disease burden for a given age group varied substantially across regions, resulting in variations in risks from alcohol consumption, particularly in individuals aged 40 years and older. For example, among individuals aged 55–59 years in north Africa and the Middle East, 30.7% of alcohol-related health risks were due to cardiovascular disease, 12.6% were due to cancers, and less than 1% were due to tuberculosis. By contrast, in this same age group in central sub-Saharan Africa, 20% of alcohol-related health risks were due to cardiovascular disease, 9.8% cancers, and 10.1% were due to tuberculosis. As a result, consumption levels for this age group before risking health loss were 0.876 drinks (or almost one standard drink per day) in north Africa and the Middle East and 0.596 drinks (about half a standard drink per day) in central sub-Saharan Africa.

Overall, the recommended alcohol intake for adults remained low at between 0 – 1.87 standard drinks per day, regardless of geography, age, sex, or year.

“Even if a conservative approach is taken and the lowest level of safe consumption is used to set policy recommendations, this implies that the recommended level of alcohol consumption is still too high for younger populations. Our estimates, based on currently available evidence, support guidelines that differ by age and region. Understanding the variation in the level of alcohol consumption that minimizes the risk of health loss for populations can aid in setting effective consumption guidelines, supporting alcohol control policies, monitoring progress in reducing harmful alcohol use, and designing public health risk messaging,” says lead author Dana Bryazka, researcher at IHME.

Young men are at greatest risk of harmful alcohol consumption

Using these estimates, the proportion of the population consuming alcohol in amounts exceeding these thresholds by location, age, sex, and year, was also calculated, serving as a guide for targeting alcohol control efforts.

Among individuals consuming harmful amounts of alcohol in 2020, 59.1% were aged 15-39 years, and 76.7% were male, with 1.03 billion males and 0.312 billion females drinking harmful amounts of alcohol. Harmful use of alcohol was particularly concentrated in young males in Australasia, western Europe, and central Europe.

“Although the risks associated with alcohol consumption are similar for males and females, young males stood out as the group with the highest level of harmful alcohol consumption. This is because a larger proportion of males compared to females consume alcohol and their average level of consumption is also significantly higher,” says Dr. Gakidou.

The authors acknowledge some limitations with this paper, including that patterns of drinking were not examined. Therefore, this study did not distinguish between individuals who infrequently engage in heavy episodic drinking and those who consume the same amount of alcohol over several days. Alcohol consumption was also self-reported, which could have introduced bias, and the study could not include data on consumption during the DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(22)00847-9

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