Heavy drinking is linked to a range of serious health consequences.
These include certain cancers, liver and heart disease, and damage to the nervous system, including the brain.
However, as has been exhaustively covered in the popular press, drinking in moderation might have certain health benefits.
A number of studies have concluded that drinking alcohol at a low level could have a protective effect.
One study, for instance, found that light and moderate drinking protected against all-cause mortality, as well as mortality related to cardiovascular disease.
A fresh approach
The researchers argue that the way that earlier studies measured alcohol's impact on health might be flawed. Specifically, they note that the studies are generally observational and usually recruit participants over the age of 50.
The difference of age
The analysis showed that the level of an individual's alcohol-related risk was heavily influenced by age.
In total, 35.8 percent of alcohol-related deaths occurred in people aged 20–49. When looking at deaths that were prevented by alcohol consumption, the scientists found only 4.5 percent in this age group.
When they looked at individuals aged 65 or over, it was a different story: Although a similar 35 percent of alcohol-related deaths occurred in this group, the authors found a huge 80 percent of the deaths prevented by alcohol in this demographic.
The researchers also saw this stark difference between age groups when they looked at the number of potential years lost to alcohol.
They showed that 58.4 percent of the total number of years lost occurred in those aged 20–49. However, this age group only accounted for 14.5 percent of the years of life saved by drinking.
Conversely, the over-65 group accounted for 15 percent of the overall years of life lost, but 50 percent of the years of life saved.
Although the conclusions are not explosive, they bring us a more complete understanding of alcohol's impact on health: Moderate drinking may benefit people of a certain age group, but heavy drinking is harmful to all.