Ooh that takes years off you... not such a good thing after all!

The Good Life Letter 

20th April 2018

  • Could a few extra tipples rob you of a few years?
  • How the life mathematics add up
  • Now this is an equation we can all raise a glass to!
This week I have mostly been doing hard mathematics!

I can’t say that it has been fun but in order to make sense of a few health stories which came across my desk this week, it was entirely necessary.

I must admit I was a little jaded following a rather convivial meeting of old friends when I picked up the paper and read a headline that said “Extra glass of wine a day will shorten your life by 30 minutes.”

“Well there’s a few hours you won’t be getting back after last night,” said my dearly beloved, who may have been awakened as I crept back to the marital bed in the early hours. “Bet I lose similar too due to lack of sleep!”

My card had been marked.

But as I sat in the office later that day I did begin to think about the survey behind the headline.

Published by the Lancet, a study of 600,000 drinkers estimated that having 10 to 15 alcoholic drinks every week could shorten a person's life by between one and two years.

And they also warned that people who drink more than 18 drinks a week could lose four to five years of their lives, risking increased likelihood of strokes, heart failure and fatal aneurysms into the bargain.

Based upon my indulgent student days alone I reckoned that I needn’t make many plans much beyond 4:30 next Thursday afternoon!

The texts and emails I received from various friends tended to suggest they were in a similar mind set too.

But as I sat and read the details of the study I heard the tones of my old maths teacher distant in my memory – “All statistics need to be interrogated properly Collins, otherwise you will be telling me that most of us are mutants because we have greater than the average number of legs!”

You see when someone tells me that I am at serious risk of developing a fatal health condition because I enjoy a pint or two on Sunday lunchtime, I will take the warning seriously but I do feel I have the right to look deeper into the numbers too.

Now, before I continue with my topic I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not saying all alcohol consumption is a good thing or that any booze is a healthy option – clearly that would be wrong…

…but as I am oft found saying, all things in moderation is my watchword.

Health statistics in focus

Here in the UK we have scientific advice that we should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, equating to around six pints of beer or seven glasses of wine.

In other countries such as Italy, Ireland and Portugal they have a recommended limit of 21 units, the USA suggests 25 units and Spain leads the pack with 35 units.

So, it seems that our guidelines are relatively low compared to the rest of the world – and as Victoria Taylor, senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation which partly funded the Lancet study said, this did not mean the UK "should rest on its laurels".

"Many people in the UK regularly drink over what's recommended" she said.

"We should always remember that alcohol guidelines should act as a limit, not a target, and try to drink well below this threshold."

This all seems to make perfect sense and to a large part I concur with what she is advocating, but I also note that she is not suggesting complete abstinence, despite what her report concluded.

One alarming finding was that the risk of having a stroke increased by 14% for those who regularly drank over the recommended limits – and that sounds significant.

But I resorted to my calculator with the advice of my maths teacher playing in my ears…

…The National Stroke Association published a report in January 2017 called The State of The Nation which collated the latest statistics on strokes in the UK and concluded that there were just over 100,000 cases a year.
This equates to about 0.001% of the population in the UK, so a 14% increase in this risk makes me now 0.00114% likely of suffering the condition.

Perhaps the other statistic that needs to be borne in mind is that the incidence of strokes has actually fallen by 19% since 1990.

By now my calculator was getting a little overworked and my poor head was buzzing – this is the problem with trying to unpick the true meaning of statistical based reports.

Is there truth in any of this?

Just as I began to counsel myself that I should make a more determined effort to reduce the Sunday pleasure I came across another report.

This time from Denmark (who for the record also has a 21-alcohol unit recommendation) which said that drinking wine on three or four occasions a week would reduce the risk of developing diabetes by 32% for women and 27% for men.

The study found that splitting drinking across three or four days rather than on a single day proved very beneficial to lowering blood sugar levels and helping the body maintain metabolic balance.

Interestingly the choice of alcohol taken also varied the effect – wine appeared to be particularly beneficial because polyphenols, particularly in red wine, play a role in helping to manage blood sugar.

When it came to drinking beer, men having one to six beers a week lowered their risk of diabetes by 21%, compared to men who drank less than one beer a week – but there was no impact on women's risk.

At the end of all this I admit that my understanding of the health impact of a few beers and the odd glass of wine a week hadn’t really advanced much.

But I think it is fair to say that too much is never going to be healthy and spreading the pleasure over a few days rather than stocking up on a single weekly bender is certainly to be avoided.

Let’s just agree that we should moderate our intake, enjoy the experience of our preferred beverage in good company and allow others to make their own choices as they go.

That seems like a good equation to me.

Yours, as always


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