Research Report: The Effect of Alcohol on Aging

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By Stephanie R. Hughes MSN, APRN, Regional Director of Nursing, Pinnacle Treatment Centers

In the United States – and in many countries around the world – we’ve normalized alcohol consumption to the extent that when we read news stories about the dangers of alcohol, most of us are surprised.

After all, it’s okay to drink a couple of glasses of wine or a beer or two, most days, as a way to relax and wind down after a busy day doing whatever takes up our time, like working, attending to family duties, or going to college.

Isn’t it?

We see new data almost every day that indicates that, no, that’s not actually safe behavior, at all. To learn how moderate drinking impacts health, please read this article on our blog:

Moderate Drinking, Binge Drinking, and Alcohol-Related Problems

And speaking of college – that’s when it’s okay to drink a beer or two every day, drink heavily on road trip vacations, and binge drink on special weekends, like fraternity or sorority rush, the end of exams, or the end of the year.

It’s okay to drink excessively in college, isn’t it?

Again – we see new data almost every day that indicates that no, heavy drinking, excessive drinking, and/or binge drinking is never safe, never advisable, and leads to a host of negative consequences. To learn more about the drinking habits of people in the U.S. over the past five decades, please read this article on our blog:

National Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use by Students and Adults Going Back to the High School Class of 1976

This wave of research should cause everyone in the U.S. to reconsider the role of alcohol in their lives. Each new study published on the negative physical, psychological, social, and economic consequences of alcohol use strengthens the case for reducing what we consider safe alcohol consumption.

That’s why we weren’t surprised when we read a new study on the relationship between alcohol consumption and aging.

New Study: Alcohol, Aging, And Genes

A paper published in July 2022 called “Alcohol Consumption and Telomere Length: Mendelian Randomization Clarifies Alcohol’s Effects” analyzed the relationship between a specific genetic metric – telomere length – and alcohol consumption.

If you’ve never heard of telomeres before, don’t worry. We’ll explain. Rather, we’ll let the National Human Genome Research Institute explain, with this definition:

“A telomere is a region of repetitive DNA sequences at the end of a chromosome. Telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes from becoming frayed or tangled. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres become slightly shorter. Eventually, they become so short that the cell can no longer divide successfully, and the cell dies.”

That definition is helpful. It clarifies why researchers want to understand the relationship between alcohol consumption and telomere length. We’ll explain:

  1. Telomere length is a biological marker of aging
  2. The shorter the telomere, the older the biological age of the cell
  3. No research to date has examined the effect of alcohol on telomeres

The research team formed this set of hypotheses:

Alcohol consumption may be associated with telomere length. If alcohol consumption is associated with telomere length, then different patterns of alcohol consumption may have different impacts on telomere length. If alcohol consumption is associated with telomere length, it may have an impact on aging and age-related disease and pathology.

To test these hypotheses, researchers recruited close to 472,174 volunteers, age 40-69, who were willing to answer surveys on alcohol consumption and provide blood samples for genetic analysis. To measure telomere length, researchers used a “well validated qPCR assay.” And to determine alcohol consumption, they divided participants into two groups:

  • One group included people diagnosed with alcohol use disorder (AUD)
  • The second group included people with no AUD diagnosis. They reported whether they were:
    • Current drinkers
    • Never drank
    • Drank in the past, but not now
  • Current or past drinkers in the second group answered specific questions on the amount and frequency of alcohol consumption

We’ll share the results of this study in a moment.

First, we’ll circle back to the assertion we opened this article with: we’ve normalized alcohol consumption to the point that when we learn it may be harmful, most of us are surprised. To verify this assertion, we’ll present the latest data on alcohol consumption – and its consequences – in the U.S.

Alcohol Consumption: Prevalence and Consequences

We’ll start with the number of people in the U.S. who report using alcohol. This data is available in the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2020 NSDUH), a large-scale survey conducted annually by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

We’ll start with the overall prevalence figures.

Alcohol Use: Any Use, Heavy Drinking, and Binge Drinking in 2020

  • Used Alcohol:
    • Adults (18+): 136,000,000
    • Adolescents (12-17): 2,061,000
  • Heavy Alcohol Use:
    • Adults (18+): 17,592,000
    • Adolescents (12-17): 140,000
  • Binge Alcohol Use:
    • Adults (18+): 60,536,000
    • Adolescents (12-17): 1,033,000

Let’s clarify those terms before we go further:

Heavy Alcohol Use/Heavy Drinking:

  • NIAA definition:
    • More than 4 drinks a day or more than 14 drinks a week for males
    • More than three drinks a day or more than 7 drinks a week for females
  • SAMHSA definition:
    • More than 5 drinks a day or more than 15 drinks a week for males
    • More than 4 drinks a day or more than 8 drinks a week for females

Binge Alcohol Use/Binge Drinking:

Note: Average size, weight, and metabolic factors determine the differences in heavy/binge drinking differences between males and females

Next, we’ll look at the prevalence of alcohol use disorder in the U.S. It’s one of the metrics used by the researchers in the study we discuss in this article. The numbers are alarming. The increase – almost a doubling – in AUD among adults from 2019 to 2020 is of particular concern to people who work in addiction treatment.

AUD Prevalence 2020

  • Adults (18+): 27.6 million total
    • 82% increase from 2019
      • 15,423,000 men
      • 12,186,000 women
    • Adolescents (12-17): 712,000 total
      • 14% increase from 2019
        • 290,000 males
        • 422,000 females

Now let’s look at the combined effect of all these statistics on the harm caused by alcohol, using the most serious metric there is: alcohol-related fatality. Here’s the data:

  • Between 20015 and 2019, alcohol-related deaths averaged 140,557 per year
    • Alcohol-related deaths among men averaged 97,182 per year
    • Alcohol-related deaths among women averaged 43,375 per year
  • Between 2015 and 2019, alcohol-related driving fatalities averaged 12,650 per year
    • That’s 33% of all driving fatalities each year

Before we share the results of the study, we have one more set of facts to share: the drinking habits associated with increased risk of alcohol use disorder (AUD). This information is important for many people to understand, since we now know that consuming alcohol at a moderate level increases the likelihood of negative physical consequences – and can also increase risk of developing AUD.

Increased Risk for Alcohol Use Disorder

  • Low risk for developing AUD:
    • 3 drinks a day, maximum 7 drinks a week (females)
    • 4 drinks a day, maximum 14 drinks per week (males)
  • People who consume more alcohol than indicated above are at increased risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD)

At this point, we’ve established several facts relevant to the study at hand. First, millions of people in the U.S. engage in heavy drinking and binge drinking every year. Second, heavy and binge drinking increase risk of alcohol use disorder. Finally, alcohol use is related to over one hundred forty thousand deaths per year: that’s 43 percent higher than opioid-related overdose, and 23 percent higher than overdose for all drugs.

It’s clear: alcohol use is associated with significant harm. Now let’s look at the results of the study we introduce above and find out if – in addition to everything we already know about the dangers of alcohol consumption – alcohol also accelerates the aging process.

Alcohol Consumption and Aging: What’s the Connection?

We just sidetracked you with statistics. But now we’re back with the study, which included data from close to half a million people and analyzed the relationship between different patterns of alcohol consumption and telomere length, in order to determine the effect of alcohol on the aging process in humans.

Here’s what the researchers found:

  • Heavy drinkers were more likely to have shorter telomeres than non-drinkers and mild or moderate drinkers
  • People diagnosed with AUD were more likely to have shorter telomeres than non-drinkers and mild or moderate drinkers
  • Consuming more than 29 units of alcohol each week results in telomere shortening
    • This harm is equivalent to 2 years of natural aging
  • Consuming 32 or more units of alcohol each week
    • This harm is equivalent to 3 years of natural aging
  • Consuming under 17 units of alcohol per week was not associated with telomere shortening

Now let’s translate that into language we can all relate to:

  • 29 units of alcohol:
    • ~ 10 glasses of wine @ ~ 8.5 ounces per glass
    • ~ 17 bottles of beer @ ~ 11 ounces per bottle
  • 32 units of alcohol:
    • ~ 12.5 glasses of wine @ ~ 8.5 ounce per glass
    • ~ 19 bottles of beer @ ~ 11 ounces per bottle

Let’s think about these numbers in terms of what most people might consider typical – or at least not unusually high – levels of alcohol consumption. Let’s say someone drinks two glasses of wine every day. That’s 14 glasses a week, which exceeds the amount of alcohol required for telomere shortening, i.e. increased aging. Next, let’s say someone has three bottles of beer per day. That’s 21 bottles of beer per week, which also exceeds the amount of alcohol required for telomere shortening.

What This Means For You

The breakdown for wine is both eye-opening and instructive. For people who regularly consume wine with dinner, two glasses is typical, and does not seem at all excessive. However, the data indicate that two glasses of wine every night exceeds the criteria for telomere shortening.

That means consuming wine at an amount most people consider mild to moderate accelerated the aging process.

The breakdown for beer is not as revealing. Three bottles of beer may seem like more than a typical amount, but think about this: a pint of beer has 16 ounces of liquid. It takes three pints a day to exceed the amount of alcohol required for telomere shortening. And for someone who consumes beer regularly – think a college student or a twentysomething – three pints of beer does not seem excessive.

That means that like wine, consuming beer in an amount most people would not consider dangerous is, in fact, dangerous, and can accelerate the aging process.

What this means for you is that it’s time to take an honest inventory of your alcohol use and ask yourself a very important question:

Is my level of alcohol consumption safe?

The materials provided on the Pinnacle Blog are for information and educational purposes only. No behavioral health or any other professional services are provided through the Blog and the information obtained through the Blog is not a substitute for consultation with a qualified health professional. If you are in need of medical or behavioral health treatment, please contact a qualified health professional directly, and if you are in need of emergency help, please go to your nearest emergency room or dial 911.