Heavy drinking has long been associated with various health problems, including cirrhosis of the liver, cancer and heart disease. But our latest study has found that these aren’t the only issues that excess drinking can cause. We found that heavy drinkers had lower levels of muscle mass than those who didn’t drink, or drank moderately.
To conduct our study, we used data from the UK Biobank, a large database of lifestyle and health information from half a million people in the UK. We included data from nearly 200,000 people aged between 37 and 73, looking at their average alcohol consumption and their muscle mass.
We made adjustments for any factors that may affect the results of our analysis, such as a person’s physical activity levels, how much protein they ate and whether they smoked.
Our analysis looked at men and women separately because there are differences in body composition between the sexes. We also only included white participants in our study because we only had data from a small number of people from other ethnic groups – and this wasn’t enough to model them separately.
We used a statistical model that would illustrate the way muscle mass differed according to the amount of alcohol people drank. Because larger people have more muscle, we scaled muscle for body size.
Overall, people had lower amounts of muscle the more that they drank. This effect happened after about one unit of alcohol a day for men (just under a small glass of wine) and just under two units for women (the equivalent of a pint of lager).
The men and women who were among the heaviest drinkers – consuming around 20 units a day, the equivalent of two bottles of wine or ten pints of beer – had 4 per cent-5 per cent less muscle than those who did not drink at all. Comparing this difference with the average yearly loss of muscle (around 0.5 per cent), our findings may have important implications when it comes to our health as we age.
Muscle loss and health
Our study can’t conclude that alcohol is directly causing muscle loss, because we measured both alcohol consumption and muscle mass at the same time. In the same study, we also tracked changes in people’s muscle mass over time, compared to their alcohol consumption.
This could give a better idea of whether this relationship was cause and effect. But this data was for a much smaller group and we didn’t find any associations.
We also don’t know what the results would be in people aged in their 70s and older, as we had very few people of this age in our study.
It’s possible that the effects of heavy alcohol drinking could be more extreme in older people because alcohol could interact with the other factors that lead to greater muscle loss in old age, such as changes in body composition or increases in inflammation.
Our study isn’t the first to show that high alcohol intake can affect muscle mass. But it is one of the first to investigate a large population of both men and women with a wide variation in alcohol consumption.
It will be important for future studies to investigate how alcohol affects muscle in people aged 75 and older and in people from different ethnic backgrounds, as our study didn’t look at these groups.
Each of us begins losing muscle mass and function slowly, starting in our 30s. While we might not notice this loss much at first, as we get older the rate at which we lose muscle mass and strength increases – leading to a condition known as sarcopenia.
This muscle loss can give way to other health problems, such as lower bone density, fractures, falls, frailty and even greater risk of early death. Sarcopenia is also a risk for type 2 diabetes.
But it’s possible to prevent some of this muscle loss through exercise and eating a diet with enough protein. Our findings suggest that if you are in your 50s and 60s, avoiding excess alcohol consumption may also help you to avoid losing too much muscle mass as you get older.
So if you’re someone who drinks a bottle of wine, or four to five pints a night and you are concerned about your muscle health, then you might want to reduce how much you drink. Even if you’re a moderate drinker, you might like to think about this.
Substituting some of your alcoholic drinks with soft drinks might be one way to help you cut down.
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