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Heavy alcohol consumption results in muscle loss and frailty

The dangerous effects of heavy alcohol consumption may go beyond the often-cited risks to the liver and brain, expanding now to a potential threat to muscle health, especially in later life. 

This warning comes as a result of recent research carried out at the University of East Anglia (UEA), in which scientists discovered a correlation between heavy drinking and increased risk of muscle loss and frailty.

According to the study, statistical models indicate that individuals who were found to have the least muscle mass were consuming 10 units of alcohol or more daily. To put this into perspective, it is roughly the equivalent of downing a full bottle of wine each day.

How the study was conducted

Importantly, the researchers made adjustments in their analysis to account for body size since larger individuals naturally possess more muscle mass. 

Furthermore, they considered influencing factors such as the participants’ levels of protein intake and physical activity. This comprehensive approach provided a clearer image of the role alcohol plays in muscle health.

The researchers found that their study had the most relevance for individuals in their 50s and 60s. This led them to propose a new reason to reduce alcohol consumption.

“Losing muscle as we age leads to problems with weakness and frailty in later life,” said Professor Ailsa Welch from UEA’s Norwich Medical School. “Alcohol intake is a major modifiable risk factor for many diseases, so we wanted to find out more about the relationship between drinking and muscle health as we age.”

Where the researchers got the data

The source of the data was the UK Biobank, a vast repository of anonymized lifestyle and health information contributed by half a million people across the UK. Their analysis focused on data from nearly 200,000 individuals, aged between 37 and 73 years.

Dr Jane Skinner, a colleague of Professor Welch at UEA’s Norwich Medical School, explained their methodology: “We studied how much alcohol people were drinking and compared it with how much muscle they had, according to their body size.” 

“We also took into account things like how much protein they consumed, their levels of physical activity and other factors that could make a difference to how much muscle they might have.”

What the researchers learned

Most participants fell within the 50s and 60s age bracket. It was discovered that the group consuming a high amount of alcohol presented with a lower quantity of skeletal muscle compared to their less-alcohol-consuming counterparts. These findings persisted even after the researchers accounted for factors such as body size and dietary protein consumption.

Significant muscle loss was most apparent in those who consumed 10 or more units of alcohol per day, equating to approximately a bottle of wine or four to five pints. 

However, Dr Skinner added a note of caution: “Alcohol consumption and muscle mass were measured cross-sectionally – in people at the same time – so we can’t be sure of a causal link.”

“This study shows that alcohol may have harmful effects on muscle mass at higher levels of consumption,” said Professor Welch. “We know that losing muscle as we age leads to problems with weakness and frailty, so this suggests another reason to avoid drinking high amounts of alcohol routinely in middle and early older age.”

The full study titled “Alcohol consumption and measures of sarcopenic muscle risk: cross-sectional and prospective associations within the UK Biobank Study” is published in the journal Calcified Tissue International.

More about alcohol and the human body 

Alcohol, especially when consumed in moderation, has been associated with some health benefits. However, heavy drinking or chronic alcohol consumption has been linked to several health problems. Here’s an overview of both:

Health Benefits of Moderate Alcohol Consumption 

Reduced Risk of Heart Disease

Some research suggests that moderate alcohol consumption, particularly red wine, might be linked with a reduced risk of heart disease. The flavonoids and other antioxidants in wine may reduce heart disease risk by increasing levels of “good” cholesterol and protecting against artery damage.

Possible Reduced Risk of Ischemic Stroke 

Ischemic stroke occurs when the arteries to your brain are narrowed or blocked, causing severely reduced blood flow. Some studies show that moderate alcohol consumption could be associated with a lower risk of this type of stroke.

Possible Reduced Risk of Diabetes

Moderate alcohol consumption may be linked with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

However, it’s important to note that these benefits should be considered alongside the potential risks. Also, other lifestyle choices such as a balanced diet, regular exercise, and not smoking can offer similar health benefits without the risks associated with alcohol.

Health Detriments of Alcohol Consumption 

Liver Damage

Chronic heavy drinking is a common cause of liver disease, including fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.

Heart Problems

Heavy drinking can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and heart rhythm problems.

Digestive Problems 

Alcohol can lead to gastritis, ulcers, acid reflux, and pancreatitis, as well as interfere with nutrient absorption.


Chronic heavy drinking is a risk factor for many types of cancer, including mouth, throat, liver, colon, and breast cancer.

Neurological Issues

Alcohol can affect the brain, causing memory loss, confusion, and even contributing to certain types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Mental Health 

Alcohol misuse can lead to a range of mental health problems including depression, anxiety, and increased risk of suicide.


Regular drinking can lead to alcoholism (alcohol dependence), a serious and chronic disease characterized by a strong craving for alcohol, withdrawal symptoms upon stopping, and the need to drink more to get the same effect.

It’s also important to mention that certain people should avoid alcohol completely, including individuals with a history of addiction, those with liver or pancreatic disease, pregnant women, and people on certain medications that can interact with alcohol.

As with many aspects of health, moderation is key when it comes to alcohol. It’s always a good idea to discuss your alcohol consumption with your healthcare provider to understand the potential benefits and risks given your personal health history and lifestyle.


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