Drinking 10 glasses of wine a week can cut life expectancy by two years, a major study says.
Even a daily glass of wine or pint of beer significantly raises the risk of heart disease and stroke.
This likelihood of an early death increases the more alcohol is consumed, the Cambridge-led researchers said.
Experts concluded that, for a 40-year-old, each unit above guidelines takes away, on average, about 15 minutes of their life. That is about the same as smoking one cigarette.
The findings support recently lowered guidelines in the UK, which suggest there is no safe level and recommend that both men and women’s drinking should not exceed 14 units a week.
Lead author Dr Angela Wood said: ‘The key message of this research is that if you already drink alcohol, drinking less may help you live longer and lower your risk of several cardiovascular conditions.’
Alcohol is linked to a host of health complaints including heart problems, liver disease, several types of cancer and dementia.
It is now the sixth biggest cause of illness for those in their 50s and 60s, with numbers rising. Experts say even moderate drinking can raise blood pressure, which is a well-known cause of heart attack, stroke and other circulation problems.
Researchers looked at 83 studies involving 600,000 people from 19 high-income countries, with almost half of data coming from the UK.
About half of those studied reported drinking more than 12.5 units a week – roughly five pints or medium glasses of wine – while almost one in ten (8.5 per cent) consumed more than triple that amount. Scientists found a 40-year-old exceeding the benchmark of 100g of pure alcohol, around five drinks a week, had their life expectancy shortened by six months.
Those having ten or more drinks, roughly two bottles of wine, had their life expectancy slashed by up to two years, while those drinking 18 or more alcoholic beverages a week can expect to live five years less.
The international study, part-funded by the British Heart Foundation, also looked at the association between alcohol and different types of cardiovascular disease.
Higher alcohol consumption was associated with a higher risk of stroke, heart failure, fatal hypertensive disease, and fatal aneurysms.
In contrast, drinking more was associated with a lower risk of non-fatal heart attacks. Experts say this is because it increases levels of good cholesterol, which can help protect against fatty deposits in blood vessels, reducing your risk of heart and circulatory disease.
But they said ‘on balance’ there are no health benefits from drinking and further research was needed to explore the link.
The findings were roughly the same for both men and women, suggesting recommended levels for both sexes should be the same.
Victoria Taylor, senior dietitian at the British Heart Foundation, said the study seemed to ‘broadly reinforce’ Government guidelines.
‘This doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels, many people in the UK regularly drink over what’s recommended,’ she said.
Professor David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University, compared the findings to smoking.
‘This is a massive and very impressive study. It estimates that, compared to those who only drink a little, people who drink at the current UK guidelines suffer no overall harm in terms of death rates, and have 20 per cent fewer heart attacks.
‘But above two units a day, the death rates steadily climb. The paper estimates a 40-year-old drinking four units a day above the guidelines has roughly two years lower life expectancy, which is about one twentieth of their remaining life.
‘This works out at about an hour per day. So it’s as if each unit above guidelines is taking, on average, about 15 minutes of life, about the same as a cigarette.
‘Of course it’s up to individuals whether they think this is worthwhile.’