New research published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health examines the link between heavy drinking and noticeable signs of aging. This is the first prospective study of its kind.
Danish-based researchers led by Dr. Janne S. Tolstrup — of the National Institute of Public Health at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense — set out to investigate the link between heavy drinking and smoking and visible signs of aging.
As the study authors explain, visible signs of aging are often a good indicator of an individual's actual biological age. Noticeable signs of aging are likely to indicate poor health.
So, Dr. Tolstrup and her team focused on four such signs: male pattern baldness, earlobe creases, so-called arcus corneae, and a sign called xanthelasmata.
Arcus corneae, sometimes known as corneal arcus, is a white or gray ring that starts accumulatingin the margins of one's cornea. Unless a congenital problem present at birth, the condition is more common in older adults. It can sometimes be a marker of high cholesterol, or even predict coronary artery disease.
Xanthelasmata is the medical term for yellowish plaques that form over or around one's eyelids. The fatty deposits can be a sign of high cholesterol, as well.
In fact, as the authors of the new research note, previous studies have linked all four signs of aging with a higher risk of poor cardiovascular health, premature death, or both.
The team studied these four signs in more than 11,600 adults whose health had been followed for 11.5 years, on average.
Studying alcohol use and aging signs
Dr. Tolstrup and her colleagues examined the data that were available from the Copenhagen City Heart Study, which is a large-scale, prospective study that started in 1976.
The study examined a random population of young Danish adults who were over the age of 20 at the beginning of the study.
Participants were asked about their lifestyle and health habits, including how much alcohol they consumed and how much they smoked.
At the time of Dr. Tolstrup's study, the average age of the participants was 51. Women consumed 2.6 drinks per week, on average, and men consumed 11.4.
Fifty-seven percent of the women and 67 percent of the men smoked.
Heavy drinking predicts signs of aging
The study revealed that "the risk of developing arcus corneae, earlobe crease, and xanthelasmata increased stepwise with increased smoking."
"For alcohol consumption, a high intake was associated with the risk of developing arcus corneae and earlobe crease, but not xanthelasmata," the authors add.
More specifically, a total of 28 or more drinks per week correlated with a 33 percent higher risk of arcus corneae in women. Men who had more than 35 drinks per week were 35 percent more likely to display the sign.
Smoking one pack of cigarettes every day for 15 to 30 years put women at a 41 percent higher risk of having the corneal condition, and men at a 12 percent higher risk.
A comparison between those who do not drink and those who drink lightly to moderately revealed no difference in terms of visible signs of aging.
Additionally, male pattern baldness did not seem to be influenced by drinking and smoking.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "[U]p to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men" count as moderate drinking.
Dr. Tolstrup and colleagues conclude:
"High alcohol consumption and smoking predict development of visible age-related signs. This is the first prospective study to show that heavy alcohol use and smoking are associated with generally looking older than one's actual age."
However, the authors also list some limitations to their study. They did not account for stress, for example, which can be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and has been linked with smoking and heavy drinking.
Also, given the observational nature of the study, conclusions cannot be drawn as to a causal relationship between drinking, smoking, and signs of aging.