“Didn't you see the news? A little light drinking is the best thing for you, it even helps guard against heart disease,” the loud woman sitting next to you at the bar says again. A study analyzing data from England’s National Health System suggests the supposed health benefits of moderate drinking are wild exaggerations, most likely born in the backroom of a pub. Compared to people who are lifetime non-drinkers, women over the age of 65 reap some small protective reward from light drinking, the researchers say, but all other age-sex groups show no positive effects whatsoever.

High alcohol consumption is linked to more than 200 acute and chronic conditions, with estimated health and social costs of up to the equivalent of $83.5 billion a year in England alone. In the United States, health officials calculate the cost of alcohol misuse problems at $223.5 billion each year and estimate 88,000 people (about 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually. Globally, more than three million deaths each year can be attributed to alcohol.

If heavy drinking is so harmful, can light drinking really be beneficial? Many researchers have wondered if perhaps, the calculations might be incorrect. For instance, could some studies, when comparing non-drinkers to moderate drinkers, accidentally include some former heavy drinkers among the currently abstinent? Would the results be different if the non-drinking category only counted lifelong non-drinkers, untainted by any alcohol use?

This was one of the many questions posed by a University College London research team working with colleagues from the University of Sydney. Naturally, they went to the source. The Health Survey for England is an annual, nationally representative survey of the general population living in England. Since 1994, adult participants have been asked for consent to follow-up, allowing researchers to analyze their answers right alongside the national mortality registration data. Given this consent, researchers are able to track exactly how health behaviors influence death and disease rates.

For the current study, the researchers gathered Health Survey data from 18,368 and 34,523 adults divided into separate age groups (50-64 years and 65 years and over) and distilled down further by sex. Participants answered questions about their weekly consumption and how much they drank on their heaviest day.

Compared with never-drinkers, only one group reaped any protective rewards from light drinking: women over the age of 65 who reported consuming 10 units or less on average per week. Still, the authors of the study warn their conclusions may not be perfectly accurate. The evidence, they note in the conclusion, suggests "that people may alter their response according to perceived social desirability."

Source: Knott CS, Coombs N, Stamatakis E, Biddulph JP. All cause mortality and the case for age specific alcohol consumption guidelines: pooled analyses of up to 10 population based cohorts. BMJ. 2015.