Vast study finds one drink a day could increase stroke risk

Grant Boone
April 7, 2019

The scientists tracked more than 500,000 people across China, following them for a decade. This could be vital information for people in Europe, who have the highest alcohol consumption per person in the world. From this evidence, the authors conclude that alcohol increases the risk of having a stroke by about one-third (35%) for every four additional drinks per day (280 g of alcohol a week), with no protective effects of light or moderate drinking.

When it came to the effect of alcohol on heart attack risk, the researchers said the effects were not clear cut and more data needed to be collected over the next few years. Much of the previous research on alcohol and health effects has relied on studies that can't prove cause and effect.

Researchers from the University of Peking, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, deduced that one or two drink every day increases stroke risk by up to 10 to 15 per cent.

A study published in 2017 found that even a moderate amount of alcohol is linked to changes in brain structure, leading to worsening brain function.

"Our genetic analyses have helped us understand the cause-and-effect relationships", Lead author Dr Iona Millwood, from the Medical Research Council Population Health Research Unit at the University of Oxford, said in a statement.

In East Asian populations, the researchers say, there are common genetic variants that greatly reduce alcohol tolerance, because they cause an extremely unpleasant flushing reaction after drinking alcohol.

Many people with Chinese ancestry have a combination of genes that puts them off drinking alcohol.

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The authors highlight that it would be impossible to do such a study in Western populations, where nearly nobody has the relevant genetic variants. One drink was defined as either a small glass of wine, a bottle of beer or a single measure of spirits.

Those with decreased alcohol intake also had lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of a stroke.

"Policies focusing on reducing alcohol consumption to the lowest levels will be important to improve health", lead author Max Griswold from the University of Washington said at the time. "Even moderate alcohol consumption increases the chances of having a stroke", said co-author of the study Professor Zhengming Chen.

"Risk of stroke increases proportionally with the amount of alcohol consumed, so if people do choose to drink, then they should limit their alcohol consumption".

"It has certainly advanced what we know about the role of alcohol in some diseases but it can't be the last word", he said.

This allowed the scientists to compare the risk of stroke in population groups with different alcohol intakes, but with other similar risk factors. "Sadly the hope that alcohol somehow protects against cardiovascular disease is probably unfounded".

David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, and who was not involved in the study, said the new study was convincing.

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