The received wisdom holds that alcohol consumption has a visibly ageing effect – but it’s an assumption that’s remained untested in a prospective study until now. Danish researchers looked at the effects alcohol and smoking on four visible age-related signs: arcus corneae (an opaque ring around the cornea), xanthelasmata (plaque on or around the eyelids), earlobe crease and male-pattern baldness – all of which have been associated with higher cardiovascular risk and mortality.
The researchers used a random sample of nearly 12,000 adults from the Copenhagen City Heart Study, a population-based, a large-scale prospective study that has been running since 1976. For this sample, the mean follow-up was 11.5 years.
A strong association was found between biological ageing of the body and heavy alcohol and tobacco consumption, affecting three of the four indicators. Only male-pattern baldness was not consistently associated with drinking or smoking.
Women who consumed 28 or more standard drinks per week had a 33% greater risk of arcus corneae, while men who had 35 or more standard drinks per week had a 35% greater risk of the same condition.
But the good news for more moderate drinkers is that the occurrence of age-related signs in this group was similar to that of non-drinkers. Moderate drinking counts as one drink per day for women and two drinks for men.
Low to moderate alcohol intake has been associated with health benefits in several studies, although that finding has been controversial and many argue that it is not causal.
The study authors from the University of Southern Denmark cautioned that the study was observational and couldn’t determine causality between smoking, drinking and ageing. They pointed out that the study didn’t account for stress or other factors potentially underlying both alcohol use and cardiovascular risk.
But they noted previous research suggesting mechanisms that might link alcohol consumption to premature ageing. One such study looked at male alcohol intake and telomere length, which is a marker for ageing. This study showed even minor alcohol consumption in midlife was significantly associated with shorter telomere length, with a 10-year difference in biological age between teetotallers and the highest consumption level.
You can read the full study here.