The study suggests that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption - classed as less than 14 drinks a week for men, and seven for women - may have “protective” health effects and can reduce the risk of dying young.
Experts said the findings show that for most older people, the overall benefits of light drinking “clearly outweigh” the possible cancer risk.
Heavy drinking has been linked to a host of health issues - including heart disease, but alcohol in moderation is widely recommended.
But, despite these recommendations, previous studies of the risk of dying among light-to-moderate drinkers were inconsistent in their findings.
For the new study, researchers examined the association between alcohol consumption and risk of mortality from all causes, cancer and cardiovascular disease in the United States.
They studied data from 333,247 participants obtained through the National Health Interview Surveys from 1997 to 2009.
The study participants were surveyed regarding their drinking and patterns of use.
They were divided into six groups, based on their drinking patterns: lifetime abstainers, lifetime infrequent drinkers, former drinkers and current light (less than three drinks per week), moderate (more than three drinks per week to less than 14 drinks per week for men or less than seven drinks per week for women) or heavy drinkers - more than 14 drinks per week for men or seven per week for women.
Study lead author Doctor Bo Xi, associate professor at Shandong University School of Public Health in China, said: “Our research shows that light-to-moderate drinking might have some protective effects against cardiovascular disease, while heavy drinking can lead to death.
“A delicate balance exists between the beneficial and detrimental effects of alcohol consumption, which should be stressed to consumers and patients,”
Throughout the length of the study, 34,754 participants died from all-causes. Of those, 8,947 deathss were cardiovascular disease-specific, and 8,427 mortalities were cancer-specific.
Researchers found that male heavy drinkers had a 25 per cent increased risk of mortality due to all-causes and a 67 per cent increase in mortality from cancer.
The increases were not significantly noticed in women. There was no association found between heavy drinking and cardiovascular disease mortality.
Moderate drinking was associated with a 13 per cent and 25 per cent decreased risk of all-cause mortality, and 21 per cent and 34 per cent decreased risk of cardiovascular disease mortality, respectively, in both men and women. Similar findings were observed for light drinking in both genders.
Study co-author Doctor Sreenivas Veeranki, assistant professor in preventive medicine and community health at University of Texas Medical Branch, said: “We have taken rigorous statistical approaches to address issues reported in earlier studies such as abstainer bias, sick quitter phenomenon and limited confounding adjustment in our study.
“A J-shaped relationship exists between alcohol consumption and mortality, and drinkers should drink with consciousness.”
Doctor Giovanni de Gaetano, director of the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention at IRCCS Istituto Neurologico Mediterraneo Neuromed said the findings show younger adults should not expect considerable benefit from moderate drinking.
But he added: “For most older persons, the overall benefits of light drinking, especially the reduced cardiovascular disease risk, clearly outweigh possible cancer risk.”