Next time you serve yourself a drink, you can avoid the judging looks by saying, “Don’t worry. I’m just doing this for my health.”
There has, however, recently been a lot of buzz about the possible health benefits of alcohol on how long you’ll live.
This doesn’t seem to make any sense. Our doctors, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and even the bottles and cans of alcoholic drinks themselves warn you about the dangerous effects of drinking (“The consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.” – Sound familiar?) (1, 2).
The CDC says, “Excessive alcohol use, including underage drinking and binge drinking (drinking 5 or more drinks on an occasion for men or 4 or more drinks on an occasion for women), can lead to increased risk of health problems such as injuries, violence, liver diseases, and cancer.” (1)
Of course, red wine seemed to be the exception. You may have heard that drinking red wine moderately may reduce your risk of cancer, due to a powerful antioxidant found in wine called resveratrol, and of heart disease (3, 8). Or, you can just look at the French, where wining and dining is quite an important part of culinary culture, and have a life expectancy of a whopping 82 years, whereas the US has a life expectancy of only 79 years of age (4).
But now mainstream media talking about drinking alcohol (not just red wine) and not only its health benefits, but how it can result in longer lives compared to those who abstain from alcohol altogether (5, 6). How can this be?
It All Started with a Study…
While it wasn’t the first one to show the potential health benefits of drinking alcohol, a 2010 study was published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research that got a lot of attention. It presents findings that suggest drinking alcohol moderately may have a significant impact on how long you’ll live. Researchers analyzed a baseline sample of 1,824 participants between 55 and 65 years of age. The baseline data on the people in the study collected information about alcohol consumption, social status, former drinking problems (if any), health factors, and social factors. Researchers then examined information on which of the people in the study died in the 20 years following the baseline study (7).
After controlling for the age of participants and whether they were men and women, it found that people who abstained from alcohol had twice the risk of mortality (death) compared to moderate drinkers. Heavy drinkers and light drinkers also had increased risk of mortality compared to moderate drinkers.
In other words, those who abstained from drinking were less likely to die than the 20 years between the baseline and the end of the study than moderate drinkers (7).
One researcher reviewed the most significant studies that reported the effects of drinking different amounts on longevity, and in all of the studies reviewed, there was a slightly decreased risk of mortality in those people who drank 1-2 drinks per day (“moderate drinkers”).
This is All Quite Confusing…
We’ll do our best to clear it up a bit.
First, we should define moderate drinking. In reality, there isn’t a magic number, per-se, since alcohol affects people differently in different amounts. Some people can have a drink of whisky or a bottle of beer and it may not have a perceivable effect on them in the slightest. For others, that same amount of alcohol affects them immediately. It depends on factors like age, sex, metabolic rate, and the presence of the enzyme that is responsible for processing alcohol in the body (8).
Most studies and surveys, however, will define moderate drinking as 1-2 drinks per day. A drink is equivalent to about one 12-ounce bottle of beer, 4-5 ounces of wine, or 1.25 ounces of 80-proof spirits (8).
A paper prepared for the American Council on Science and Health by R. Curtis Ellison, M.D., points out the limitations of a lot of the studies that demonstrate some of the important limitations of the studies that show the positive effect of drinking on longevity.
Some of these limitations include:
- Dependence on self-reports of drinking, in which individuals may underestimate or overestimate how much they drink.
- There isn’t data about the situations in which alcohol is consumed (whether they eat alcohol with food, for example).
- Information on the type of alcohol is often not collected.
Even then, there are a multiple events that results in death, so it is important to define the specific diseases that are associated with alcohol consumption.
Coronary Heart Disease and Moderate Alcohol Consumption
Multiple population-wide studies have demonstrated that moderate drinkers, especially wine-drinkers, are at a lower risk of coronary heart disease. The mechanism isn’t completely understood, but it might have something to do with improving cholesterol levels, and its potential effect on decreasing the formation of blood clots (thrombosis) in the blood (9, 10, 11).
Other Diseases and Moderate and Excessive Alcohol Consumption
Much of this data is also difficult to know for certain, for many of the reasons mentioned above in the potential limitations of studies on the health impacts of alcohol consumption.
However, initial studies suggest that any alcohol intake is correlated with increased rates or reports of breast cancer and cirrhosis (12, 13). Cirrhosis of the liver, for the most part, occurs in people that consume excessive amounts of alcohol regularly, but epidemiologic studies suggest that risk increases with any alcohol intake (8).
Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol and binge drinking lead to a range of other negative health effects, including:
- Deaths caused by alcohol-related accidents
- Increased rates of suicide
- Increase rates of oral, pharyngeal, esophageal, and stomach cancer
In the end, alcohol has a toxic effect on our bodies, so drinking too much can only be expected to have a negative impact on our life expectancy.
Even so, the risks associated with heavy drinking are not seen in moderate drinkers.
Does Drinking Alcohol Prolong Your Life?
The main message sent by the study is that moderate drinkers have a slightly prolonged life compared to non-drinkers, but that excessive drinkers had a significantly increased chance of death compared to non-drinkers, regardless of age group, ethnicity, or geographic location.
However, there are many lifestyle factors that affect how long you live, so deciding to start to drink 1-2 alcoholic beverages a day doesn’t mean you will automatically tack on a few extra years on your life.
<h3class=”article-heading”>Other important factors for longevity include:
- Smoking habits
- Exercise and physical activity
- Use of seat belts
- Social ties
- Religion (Mormons and Seventh-Day Adventists, who tend to avoid smoking, drinking, and eating certain foods, tend to live longer than the general population, for example) (14, 15, 16).
If You Haven’t Already, Don’t Pick Up That Glass
If you don’t already drink moderately, don’t start now. Because there isn’t a clear and direct relationship between drinking moderately and living longer (there is no way how to know if it will affect you, specifically), it is best to focus on other lifestyle factors that can help increase longevity (17). Improve your diet, make sure you are satisfied in your personal relationships, do exercise, and get check-ups regularly.
Also, remember that if you are at risk of being pregnant, or if there is alcoholism in your family, you should always avoid alcohol.
If you do, however, drink 1-2 alcoholic drinks a day, your doctor says it’s OK, you don’t get drunk (or aim to get drunk), and it doesn’t negatively affect your social life, then you should be fine. If you live an overall healthy life, there is a chance you may even reap the health benefits of alcohol!