Line Between At-Risk Levels of Alcohol Consumption and Social Drinking Difficult to Distinguish

A glass of wine at night or a couple of beers after dinner may be more dangerous than many people think, according to recent U.K. health reports and U.S. sources.

National health agencies in the U.K. have said that for men, no more than three to four alcoholic "units" should be consumed daily, which could be exceeded in one pint of lager beer. For women, no more than two to three alcoholic units – or the equivalent to one large-sized glass of wine – is recommended to prevent serious and life-threatening health problems, ranging from cancer to heart attacks and strokes.

However, many people don’t know that consistent consumption of alcohol can cause health problems, and may falsely believe that people who frequently binge drink or are labeled "alcoholics" have the highest health risks. A survey of 2,000 adults said that more than 80 percent thought they weren’t damaging their health by drinking daily over time. According to the U.K. survey results, as many as 7.5 million people may feel the same way.

The health risks associated with consistent alcoholic consumption are tangible, say experts. For women, having a 250 ml-sized glass of wine daily have a three-times higher chance of being diagnosed with oral cancer, and may be at three times higher risk of experiencing a stroke. For men, these risks are also present, especially if he consumes two pints of lager beer daily.

Blood pressure is also affected, increasing a person’s risk of heart attack or stroke. For women, the risk of having elevated blood pressure doubles if she consumes two large glasses of wine on a daily basis. She will also have a 50 percent elevated risk of developing breast cancer.

In the U.S., similar numbers of adults may also be unaware of the dangers of consistent drinking. For middle-aged adults in the Baby Boomer generation, the news may be especially unknown. A study conducted at Duke University suggests that nearly one-third of adults in the 50-plus age bracket consumed alcohol regularly in the form of binge drinking, defined in this case as consuming at least five alcoholic beverages in a single episode.

Experts like Dr. Mark Willenbring, Director of the Division of Treatment and Recovery Research, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), say the rise in daily consumption of alcohol and binge drinking in the U.S. may be related to the blurry line between problem drinking and social drinking. What constitutes reduced-risk levels of alcohol consumption can vary from person to person, and many people may not have the knowledge to determine if their drinking patterns have reached problematic levels. The daily drinking levels are the most important, says Willenbring, over the weekly totals because daily drinking behaviors may be a stronger indicator of a person’s dependence on alcohol.

t is believed that nearly 25 percent of people whose alcohol consumption goes beyond the levels deemed to be low-risk are abusing alcohol and are living with alcoholism. Experts suggest anyone who consumes alcohol regularly should explore tools for learning more about their consumption levels, including an online risk analysis from the NIAAA.