A new Danish study confirms what many may already suspect: that heavy drinking and smoking are linked to physical signs of premature aging.
“This is the first prospective study to show that alcohol and smoking are associated with the development of visible age-related signs and thus generally looking older than one’s actual age….This may reflect that heavy drinking and smoking increases general aging of the body,” say the researchers in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
For the study, the researchers evaluated the data of more than 11,500 adults, whose heart health and visible aging signs were tracked for an average of 11.5 years as part of the Copenhagen City Heart Study.
This study, which began in 1976, has been tracking a random sample of Danish people over the age of 20 living in the Copenhagen area in 1981-1983, 1991-1994, and in 2001-2003.
Before each of the clinic visits, participants were asked to report their lifestyle and general health as well as their drinking and smoking habits. They were also checked for four signs of aging that have been linked to a greater risk of cardiovascular ill health and/or death.
These four signs are as follows: earlobe creases; a greyish opaque-colored ring or arc around the peripheral cornea of both eyes (arcus corneae); yellow-orange plaques on the eyelids (xanthelasmata); and male pattern baldness (receding hairline or a bald patch on the top of the head).
The average age of the participants was 51, but ranged from 21 to 86 among the women, and from 21 to 93 among the men. Average alcohol consumption was 2.6 drinks per week for women and 11.4 drinks for men. Just over half of the women (57 percent) and around two thirds of the men (67 percent) were current smokers.
Arcus coneae was the most common sign of aging among both men and women, with a prevalence of 60 percent among men over 70 and among women over 80. The least common sign was xanthelasmata, with a prevalence of five percent among men and women over 50. A receding hairline was common among men, affecting 80 percent of those over the age of 40.
Analysis of drinking and smoking patterns revealed a consistently greater risk of looking older than one’s true age and developing arcus corneae, earlobe creases, and xanthelasmata among those who smoked and drank heavily.
For example, compared with a weekly alcohol intake of up to seven drinks, a total of 28 or more was tied to a 33 percent greater risk of arcus coneae among the women, and a 35 percent greater risk among men who consumed 35 or more drinks every week.
Similarly, smoking one pack of 20 cigarettes per day for 15 to 30 years was linked to a 41 percent greater risk among women and a 12 percent greater risk among men, compared to non-smokers.
No aging difference was found between light to moderate drinkers and non-drinkers.
Male pattern baldness was not consistently associated with heavy drinking or smoking, probably because it is significantly influenced by genes and circulating levels of male hormones (androgens), suggest the researchers.
The study is observational, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, particularly since the data on smoking and drinking relied on personal recall, which is subject to bias.
The study was also unable to account for stress, a factor known to be associated both with cardiovascular disease risk and smoking and heavier drinking.