The health benefits of alcohol only occur in middle aged and older people, finds a study in this week`s British Medical Journal.
The scientists found that for men aged up to 35 and women aged up to 55, even light drinkers have a higher risk of death than those who do not drink at all. Most previous studies have not studied the age factor when looking at the benefits of alcohol consumption.
Researchers analysed the drinking habits of men and women in England and Wales for age bands 16-24, 25-34, 35-44, and so on up to over 85. Using national death statistics and international epidemiological studies, they then estimated the relation between alcohol consumption and risk of death, and how this varies with age and sex.
The team found a direct dose-response relation between alcohol consumption and risk of death in women aged 16-54 and in men aged 16-34. However, the level at which the risk of death was lowest increased with age, reaching 3 units a week in women aged over 65 and 8 units a week in men aged over 65.
The level of alcohol consumption that carries a 5 per cent increase in risk of death increases with age from 8 to 20 units a week in women and from 5 to 34 units a week in men, they added.
To incur an increased risk of no more than 5 per cent, the researchers suggested that women would be advised to limit their drinking to 1 unit a day up to age 44, 2 units a day up to age 74, and 3 units a day over age 75.
Men would be advised to limit their drinking to 1 unit a day up to age 34, 2 units a day up to age 44, 3 units a day up to age 54, 4 units a day up to age 84, and 5 units a day over age 85.
They added that as most deaths attributable to alcohol at younger ages are due to injuries, a greater focus could be placed on avoiding risky patterns of drinking rather than on reducing average alcohol consumption.
Whether the study leads younger people to rethink their drinking habits or not, remains to be seen.