To drink, or not to drink? For some people, the question of whether or not they should drink alcohol may be a simple one to answer. People choose not to drink alcohol for a variety of reasons. Some abstain from drinking because their religion forbids the use of alcohol. Some avoid alcoholic beverages because they don’t like the way it tastes or because it’s too expensive. A few people avoid alcohol because they had a bad experience with it or it causes them to gain weight. And some don’t drink for health reasons.
But is moderate drinking really unhealthy? According to a new paper in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, it may not be. A group of six researchers led by psychologist Charles Holahan of the University of Texas at Austin recently concluded that people who drink alcohol moderately live longer than people who have never taken a drink in their lives. Perhaps many people would not be too shocked by the revelation that moderate drinking can be healthy, especially given all the good press red wine has been getting lately. However, those who abstain for health reasons might be shocked by the study’s other finding– even heavy drinkers tend to outlive those who abstain from drinking alcohol!
How can this be? After all, Americans have heard all about the dangers of drinking too much. Heavy drinking has been linked to many health problems, including: cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, breast cancer, mouth and esophagus cancers, gastric ulcers, depression, addiction, and brain diseases– not to mention accidents and violence. And yet, Holahan and his team found that over a 20 year period, people who were not current drinkers had a higher mortality rate than those who drank moderately or even heavily. Moderate drinking, for the purposes of Holahan’s study, is defined as one to three drinks per day.
Who was studied?
The sample of people who were studied in this research included 1,824 people between the ages of 55 and 65 years of age. 63% of the participants were men. Over a period of 20 years, 69% of the people who did not drink alcohol at all and 60% of the heavy drinkers had died. Only 41% of the moderate drinkers had passed on by the time the study had ended.
Why did the moderate drinkers live?
There could be a number of reasons why the moderate drinkers had a lower rate of mortality than the abstainers and the heavy drinkers. According to an article from the Mayo Clinic, moderate drinking has been shown to decrease the incidence of heart disease and the likelihood of suffering a heart attack. It may also help reduce the incidence of gallstones, diabetes, and strokes, particularly in older individuals. Of course, we should keep in mind that this study included more men than women. Statistically, men, particularly those who are overweight, are at a higher risk of suffering both heart attacks and strokes, two conditions which supposedly may be less likely to occur in people who drink moderately.
Many people tend to enjoy moderate drinking among friends. Drinking moderately with others can provide social interaction, which is especially important for people as they age. Some people also find that drinking moderately is a stress reliever, which can lead to better relaxation and sleep. Mind you, heavy drinking before bedtime is definitely not recommended, but a cocktail several hours before bedtime might be relaxing for some people and may even lead to better sleep. And some folks find that a nice wine with dinner helps them enjoy their food more and, perhaps, even choose better food. I know in my case, I’m not likely to want to drink a good wine or beer with junk food. I’m much more inclined to enjoy wine with a healthy meal prepared with fresh ingredients.
One other reason why the moderate drinkers lived longer could have to do with their socioeconomic status. Drinking alcohol, especially when it’s the good stuff, is expensive and those who are poorer tend not to live as long as those who have money. If we’re only talking about moderate drinkers, this theory could have some truth to it. However, as a social worker, I have seen firsthand that heavy drinkers who are also alcoholics will often choose alcohol over food, which can lead to both poverty and poor health.
On the other hand, those who abstain from alcohol strictly because of poverty may be suffering from high stress and poor health because they can’t access nutritional foods or decent healthcare. And people who don’t drink because their religion forbids it may be under stress for reasons having to do with their beliefs. For example,many faiths require followers to: pay tithing, which in some situations can lead to financial stress, undertake extra church related duties, which can lead to physical and emotional stress, or publicly confess to their sins and transgressions, which can also lead to stress. Conversely, some religious people get a lot of peace and satisfaction from their religious beliefs.
This is not a license to get drunk!
When I first saw an article about this subject on Time.com, I noticed that a lot of people were cheering about it. Some folks seemed to think that the fact that a group of researchers in Texas found that drinkers outlived non-drinkers was a license to drink. It’s not, and the original authors of the study are careful to make that point.
The fact is, some people should not drink alcohol at all. Certainly alcohol is not a suitable health aid for pregnant women, children, alcoholics, or anyone who takes medication that doesn’t mix with alcohol. And certainly, it’s not appropriate to drink alcoholic beverages if you’re planning to drive, operate heavy machinery, or undertake any other activity that requires sharp mental and motor skills.
What this research does seem to indicate is that for some people, drinking alcohol in moderation really can be a healthy habit. And, perhaps, drinking alcoholic beverages can go hand in hand with other healthy habits. Of course, whether or not drinking is healthy for you, personally, is a decision for you alone to make.
American Heart Association. (December 28, 2009). Overweight men at higher risk of heart attack, stroke, premature death Retrieved from http://www.newsroom.heart.org/index.php?s=43&item=916
Cloud, John. (August 30, 2010). Why Do Heavy Drinkers Outlive Nondrinkers? Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2014332,00.html?hpt=C2
Cornell University. Understanding Wine and Beer Retrieved from http://www.nysaes.cornell.edu/fst/faculty/acree/fs430/notes_lawless/Boozisbad.html
Holahan, Charles, Schutte, Kathleen, Brennan, Penny L., Holahan, Carole K., Moos, Bernice, Moos, Rudolf H. “Late-Life Alcohol Consumption and 20-year Mortality”, Alcoholism Clinical & Experimental Research.
Article first published online: 24 AUG 2010. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1530-0277.2010.01286.x/references
Mayo Clinic Staff. Alcohol Use: If you drink, keep it moderate Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/alcohol/SC00024