Even the most casual drinkers among us, including those following USA government recommendations, can see months and years taken away by steadily hitting the hooch, according to a new study by an global team of researchers. They were followed for years afterward.
Drinking alcohol was linked with a lower risk of non-fatal heart disease, but scientists said this benefit was "swamped" by the increased risk of other forms of heart disease. So it's as if each unit above guidelines is taking, on average, about 15 minutes of life, about the same as a cigarette.
"Of course it's up to individuals whether they think this is worthwhile", he said via the Science Media Centre in London.
The most people can get away with and not raise their risk of early death was about five glasses of wine a week or the equivalent, the researchers found.
The study found that people who down more than seven drinks a week can expect to die sooner than those who drink less.
The researchers also looked at the association between alcohol consumption and different types of cardiovascular disease.
"Sadly we live in an era where those in the temperance and health movements refuse to accept the facts: that sensible alcohol consumption has health benefits and that adults should be informed to make their own choices, not nannied into submission".
The risk starts rising with as little as one drink a day on average. That directly contradicts US government guidelines that define moderate, "low-risk" drinking as two drinks a day for men and one drink for women, with a limit of 14 a week for men and seven for women - with lower levels for people over the age of 65. They also noted that the study was not able to account for people who reduced their alcohol consumption due to health complications.
Consuming between 200-350g per week lowered life expectancy by one to two years, and more than 350g by up to five years.
The National Health and Medical Research Council is now undertaking a revision of the Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol 2009.
Part-funded by the British Heart Foundation, the study shows that drinking more alcohol is associated with a higher risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm, heart failure and death.
"We should always remember that alcohol guidelines should act as a limit, not a target".
"There are old studies from the 1970s suggesting that this pathway might regulate thirst".
"Exploratory analyses suggested that drinkers of beer or spirits, as well as binge drinkers, had the highest risk for all-cause mortality", the researchers wrote.
Lead author, Dr Angela Wood said: "The key message of this research for public health is that, if you already drink alcohol, drinking less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditions".
But Victoria Taylor, senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation, which partly funded the study, said this did not mean the United Kingdom "should rest on its laurels".
Thresholds for safer alcohol use might need lowering, University of Queensland drug and alcohol experts have cautioned.