For the new study, the researchers analyzed information from 599,912 people in high-income countries who drank alcohol but did not have heart disease at the study's start.
Researchers also looked at the association between alcohol consumption and different types of cardiovascular disease.
In comparison to those who reported drinking less than 10 standard drinks (or five pints) a week, those who said they consumed between 10 and 20 per week, 20 and 35 per week, or more than 35 per week had an estimated lower life expectancy at the age of 40 of approximately six months, between one and two years and, four to five years, respectively. 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", he said via the Science Media Centre in London. Italians, Portuguese and Spanish drinkers are warned that consuming more than around nine glasses of wine could be risky.
"This doesn't mean we should rest on our laurels, many people in the United Kingdom regularly drink over what's recommended".
The researchers point out that there is no thresholds below which lower alcohol consumption stopped being associated with disease risk but that the threshold for lowest risk was 100g per week.
Drinking between 200-350g alcohol/week would cut up to two years off, and drinking more than 350g alcohol would cut off up to five years. For women, the recommendation tops out at one drink per day, which is 98 grams per week.
The American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund recommend in a joint report that people limit alcohol. They also noted that the study was not able to account for people who reduced their alcohol consumption due to health complications.
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The National Health and Medical Research Council is now undertaking a revision of the Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol 2009. Heavy drinkers shave years off their lifespan.
"Guideline developers tend to recognise that, in line with many other voluntary behaviours, drinkers are likely to be willing to accept some level of risk and have set guideline thresholds accordingly", she said.
"There are old studies from the 1970s suggesting that this pathway might regulate thirst".
But many countries have drinking guidelines that consider 100 grams of alcohol a week to be well within the range of "safe" drinking.
"When the US reviews their guidelines, I would hope they would use this as evidence to consider lowering the guidelines for men probably in line with female guidelines", the study's lead author, Angela Wood, a senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge, told The Washington Post.
University of Texas Southwestern researchers, in their study, have identified a hormone that acts on the brain to increase the desire to drink water in response to specific nutrient stresses that can cause dehydration.
Thresholds for safer alcohol use might need lowering, University of Queensland drug and alcohol experts have cautioned.
"Nonetheless, the findings ought to be widely disseminated and they should provoke informed public and professional debate".