Heavy drinkers may be at higher risk of muscle loss and frailty in later life than the rest of the population, according to a new study carried out by researchers at the University of East Anglia, UK.

The study found, with statistical modeling, that those with the lowest amount of muscle were heavy drinkers, i.e., people who consumed at least ten units of alcohol each day. A bottle of wine has about the equivalent of ten units.

The researchers scaled for body size, given that large people have more muscle mass than their smaller counterparts. They also factored in physical activity and protein consumption.

This is another reason to drink alcohol in moderation, especially if you are in your 50s and 60s, the team explained.

Images of alcoholic drinks - article about heavy drinkers and muscle mass

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Heaving drinking is a modifiable factor

Professor Ailsa Welch, who works at the University of East Anglia’s (UEA’s) Norwich Medical School, said:

“Losing muscle as we age leads to problems with weakness and frailty in later life. 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.”

  • Definition of modifiable and non-modifiable factors

The term Modifiable Factor is one that we can do something about if we change our lifestyle. It contrasts with a Non-Modifiable Factor, such as genetics or family history.

If you have a family history of cardiovascular disease, for example you have a higher risk of developing it compared to somebody with no history – there is nothing you can do about it. You can, however, reduce your risk by giving up smoking, losing weight, or doing more exercise – these are modifiable factors.

UK Biobank

The researchers examined data from the UK Biobank, a large-scale collection of health and genetic data from 500,000 people in the UK. It’s used for medical research.

They gathered and analyzed data from 200,000 people aged 37 to 73 years.

Dr. Jane Skinner, who also works at UEA’s Norwich Medical School, explained:

“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.”

“Most of the people were in their 50s and 60s.  We found that those who drank a lot of alcohol had a lower amount of skeletal muscle compared to people who drank less after we took into account their body sizes and other factors.”

“We saw that it really became a problem when people were drinking 10 or more units a day – which is the equivalent of about a bottle of wine or four or five pints.”

“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.”

Another reason for heavy drinkers to cut down

The study clearly shows that heavy alcohol consumption may negatively affect muscle mass.

Prof. Welch added:

“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 study was published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Calcified Tissue International.

Skinner, J., Shepstone, L., Hickson, M., & Welch, A. A. (2023). Alcohol Consumption and Measures of Sarcopenic Muscle Risk: Cross-Sectional and Prospective Associations Within the UK Biobank Study. Calcif Tissue Int. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00223-023-01081-4.