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Alcohol consumption is responsible for 2.8 million deaths per year across the globe, with cancer the leading cause of alcohol-related death among people aged 50 years and older, warn researchers, who also emphasize that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.
The findings come from the latest version of the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study (GBD), which analyzed data on 28 million people from 195 countries to estimate the prevalence of alcohol consumption, the amounts consumed, and the associated harms.
The report was published online in the Lancet on August 23.
The analysis found that among individuals aged 15 to 49 years, alcohol accounted for around 4% of deaths in women and 12% in men. Tuberculosis and road injuries were the leading causes of death related to alcohol.
For those aged 50 years and older, alcohol was linked to 27% of deaths in women and 19% of deaths in men, with cancer the leading cause of alcohol-related death.
Overall, consuming just one drink a day increased the risk of developing alcohol-related health problems by 0.5% vs abstaining; drinking five drinks a day led to 37% increase in risk.
Lead author Max G. Griswold, MA, Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, Seattle, said in a release that although previous studies have suggested that alcohol is protective against some conditions, “we found that the combined health risks associated with alcohol increase with any amount of alcohol.
“In particular, the strong association between alcohol consumption and the risk of cancer, injuries, and infectious diseases offset the protective effects for ischemic heart disease in women in our study,” he said.
“Although the health risks associated with alcohol starts off being small with one drink a day, they then rise rapidly as people drink more,” he added.
The new findings echo those from in the 2014 World Cancer Report, which found a dose/response relationship between alcohol consumption and certain cancers.
Griswold calls for public health policies to focus on “reducing alcohol consumption to the lowest level” and to revise the “widely held view of the benefits of alcohol.”
Coauthor Emmanuela Gakidou, PhD, also from Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, went further, declaring: “Alcohol poses dire ramifications for future population health in the absence of policy action today.
“Our results indicate that alcohol use and its harmful effects on health could become a growing challenge as countries become more developed, and enacting or maintaining strong alcohol control policies will be vital,” she said.
She suggested that countries look at measures such as excise taxes and controlling the availability and advertising of alcohol.
“Any of these policy actions would contribute to reductions in population-level consumption, a vital step toward decreasing the health loss associated with alcohol use.”
In an accompanying comment, Robyn Burton, PhD, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, and Nick Sheron, MD, Division of Infection, Inflammation and Immunity, University of Southampton, United Kingdom, say that the results are “clear and unambiguous.”