Despite the various and severe health risks that come with drinking, abstaining from alcohol appears to increaseÂ your risk of dying prematurely. The reasons for this are not clearly known, but it is thought to be because drinkers are more likely to belong to a community (albeit one that drinks), and a feeling of community is stronglyÂ correlatedÂ with happiness andÂ longevity.
Even after controlling for nearly all imaginable variables â€” socioeconomic status, level of physical activity, number of close friends, quality of social support and so on â€” the researchers [â€¦] found that over a 20-year period, mortality rates were highest for those who were not current drinkers, regardless of whether they used to be alcoholics, second highest for heavy drinkers and lowest for moderate drinkers.Â [â€¦]
These are remarkable statistics. Even though heavy drinking is associated with higher risk for cirrhosis and several types of cancer (particularly cancers in the mouth and esophagus), heavy drinkers are less likely to die than people who don’t drink, even if they never had a problem with alcohol. One important reason is that alcohol lubricates so many social interactions, and social interactions are vital for maintaining mental and physical health. [â€¦]
The authors of the new paper are careful to note that even if drinking is associated with longer life, it can be dangerous: it can impair your memory severely and it can lead to nonlethal falls and other mishaps [â€¦] that can screw up your life. There’s also the dependency issue.
The correlations between alcohol intake and various health outcomes (both positive and negative) is confusing and varied. A few things seem to be for sure: it can be good and it can be bad; no causation has been proven; and the effects differ between the sexes.
Update: I forgot to link to the published study (Holahan et al., 2010)â€¦ the Results section is the one worth perusing. For those without full access to the study (ahem), Overcoming Bias provides the full list of controls.
Update: Jonah Lehrer discusses this study in an article titled Why Alcohol Is Good for You, emphasising the social side of drinking as the key to longevity.
A longitudinal study of almost 20,000 U.S. women is showing signs that moderate alcohol consumption (“one or two alcohol beverages a day”) can lower the risk for obesity and inhibit weight gain:
Over the course of the study, 41 percent of the women became overweight or obese. Although alcohol is packed with calories (about 150 in a six-ounce glass of wine), the nondrinkers in the study actually gained more weight over time: nine pounds, on average, compared with an average gain of about three pounds among regular moderate drinkers. The risk of becoming overweight was almost 30 percent lower for women who consumed one or two alcohol beverages a day, compared with nondrinkers. [â€¦]
The link between consumption of red wine and less weight gain was particularly pronounced. [â€¦] Some studies have suggested that resveratrol, a compound present in grapes and red wine, appears to inhibit the development of fat cells and to have other antiobesity properties.
The article also notes that while moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with “better heart health”, it has also been associated with an increase in breast cancer risk.
None of this is good news for men:
Studies suggest that drinking alcohol has different effects on eating habits among men and women. Men typically add alcohol to their daily caloric intake, whereas women are more likely to substitute alcohol for food. [â€¦]
In addition, there may be differences in how men and women metabolize alcohol. Metabolic studies show that after men drink alcohol, they experience little if any metabolic change. But alcohol appears to slightly speed up a woman’s metabolism.
As before: this is still correlatory, but interesting nonetheless.
Moderate alcohol intake has long been lauded as an ingredient of the healthy lifestyle; being good for your heart and your longevity.
According to a growing number of vocal psychologists, however, studies showing health benefits from moderate alcohol consumption are purely correlatory and any advice coming from them should be taken with caution.
From an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
The bottom line is there has not been a single study done on moderate alcohol consumption and mortality outcomes that is a ‘gold standard’ kind of study â€” the kind of randomized controlled clinical trial that we would be required to have in order to approve a new pharmaceutical agent in this country.
[Moderate drinkers and abstainers] are so different that they simply cannot be compared. Moderate drinkers are healthier, wealthier and more educated, and they get better health care, even though they are more likely to smoke. They are even more likely to have all of their teeth, a marker of well-being.
In fact, even the original researcher whose “landmark study [found] that members of the Kaiser Permanente health care plan who drank in moderation were less likely to be hospitalized for heart attacks than abstainers” has since discovered that even moderate alcohol consumption may increase hypertension.