While experts generally agree that drinking alcohol in moderation is OK, having too much alcohol has been linked to a slew of serious health problems like liver disease, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and certain cancers. Now, there’s a new concern to add to the list: Drinking can age you on a cellular level.
That’s the takeaway from a new study from Kobe University that was presented at the 40th annual scientific meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism. For the study, researchers analyzed the drinking history, alcohol habits, and DNA of 255 people, about half of whom sought alcoholism treatment services at a hospital in Japan.
After analyzing each person’s data, the researchers determined that the more alcohol people drank, the more their cells appeared to age. Alcoholic patients specifically had shortened telomeres, the protein caps on the ends of human chromosomes that are markers of aging and overall health. Every time a cell replicates, a little amount of telomere is lost. As a result, they get shorter over time, but certain things like alcohol abuse can also speed up this aging process. And, by having shortened telomere lengths, alcoholic participants were at a greater risk of developing age-related diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and dementia.
“Telomere shortening has been well described as a manifestation of the aging process,” Jack Jacoub, MD, an internist, medical oncologist, and director of thoracic oncology at MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells Yahoo Beauty. “There’s no dispute about that.” However, he says, the alcohol link is new.
Health expert Jennifer Wider, MD, tells Yahoo Beauty that the news is concerning given that it places people who drink heavily at risk for age-related diseases. In those individuals who are already at a higher risk for diseases like cancer and stroke “this could have dire consequences,” she says.
Naturally, you’re probably wondering what this means if you’re not an alcoholic but still drink on occasion. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that, if you drink, you drink in moderation, which is defined by having up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. (For the record, a “drink” is a 12-ounce beer, 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol.) Anything above that is generally considered heavy drinking.
Jacoub says it’s possible that any amount of alcohol can speed up cell aging, but the quantity you drink and how long you drink matters. Meaning, if you’ve been a heavy drinker for years, you’re probably putting yourself at a higher risk of age-related diseases than someone who only drinks occasionally and has maintained that habit for a long time. “Moderation is definitely key,” Jacoub says.
Wider points out that the study was small and focused on alcoholics, and that more studies are needed before any definitive conclusions can be drawn. “The effects for moderate drinkers are likely less significant,” she says.