Some 60 per cent of alcohol-related injuries occur among people under 40, including motor vehicle accidents, suicides and homicides. Drinking can also damage the developing brain and other organs, and lead to acute alcohol poisoning.
The NHS currently recommends that adults should not drink more than 14 units a week, and should spread out their consumption, rather than bingeing. But the researchers said most guidelines were still too high.
Dana Bryazka, the lead author and researcher at IHME, said: “Even if a conservative approach is taken and the lowest level of safe consumption is used to set policy recommendations, this implies that the recommended level of alcohol consumption is still too high for younger populations.”
For adults aged between 40 and 64, the study found that safe alcohol consumption levels ranged from about half a standard drink per day to almost two standard drinks.
For individuals over 65 years in 2020, the risks of health loss from alcohol consumption were reached after consuming a little more than three standard drinks per day.
One standard drink is defined as 10 grams of pure alcohol, which is equivalent to a small 100ml glass of red wine at 13 per cent alcohol by volume, a 375ml can or bottle at 3.5 per cent alcohol by volume, or a 30ml shot of spirits at 40 per cent alcohol.
The researchers said that small amounts of alcohol consumption in populations over 40 without underlying conditions may be associated with improved health outcomes, particularly in populations that effectively face a higher burden of cardiovascular diseases.
Scientists caution against changing guidelines
However, British scientists said that younger people were at lower absolute risk from alcohol-related problems than older people, so cautioned against changing guidelines.
Dr Colin Angus, Senior Research Fellow, at Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, University of Sheffield said: “There are over 14 times as many alcohol-attributable deaths in the UK among 70 to 74 year-olds than 20 to 24 year olds, which rather contradicts the assertion in this new study that we should focus on the drinking of younger age groups.
“There may be valid reasons to target younger drinkers for public health interventions, but those arguments are not presented in this study.”
Researchers also point out that although alcohol can bring benefits for heart health and diabetes, it is known to contribute to many other conditions, such as cancer and dementia.
For over-55s in England, rates of alcohol-related deaths and alcohol-specific admissions have risen more sharply than other age groups over the past 15 years.
Dr Tony Rao, a visiting clinical research fellow at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, said: “We know that any purported health benefits from alcohol on the heart and circulation are balanced out by the increased risk from other conditions such as cancer, liver disease and mental disorders such as depression and dementia.”
The research was published in The Lancet.