Scientists investigate the claim that moderate drinking can be good for your health.
A common belief is that having a glass of wine with dinner will help people live longer and healthier, but according to new findings published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, the scientific evidence to support that claim is lacking.
Moderate drinking has been linked to a variety of health benefits, including a lower risk of heart disease and a longer life.
However, researchers at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research investigated 87 studies that associate moderate alcohol intake with long-term health benefits, finding that the majority of the studies were deeply flawed in their designs.
According to lead researcher Tim Stockwell, the director of the Centre for Addictions Research, one of the key issues in the studies was how an “abstainer” was defined.
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Most of the studies that have made these claims about moderate drinking have compared moderate drinkers — defined as people who have up to two drinks per day — with “abstainers,” but the problem is that these “abstainers” can include people who have cut out alcohol but have poor health otherwise.
"A fundamental question is, who are these moderate drinkers being compared against?" Stockwell said in the press release.
After the researchers corrected the studies for design issues and the abstainer “biases,” they found that the moderate drinkers no longer showed an advantage for living a longer life. Additionally, only 13 of the 87 studies avoided biasing the abstainer comparison group, and these showed no health benefits.
Even more striking, before the corrections were made, Stockwell says that it was actually “occasional” drinkers who lived the longest. An “occasional” drinker is someone who had less than one drink per week, so the alcohol intake was very low. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that such infrequent drinking would be the reason for their longevity.
"Those people would be getting a biologically insignificant dose of alcohol," Stockwell said.
Studies have linked moderate drinking to such a wide range of health benefits that it’s simply implausible, according to Stockwell. It’s been said that, compared to abstainers, moderate drinkers have a lower risk of deafness and even a lower risk of liver cirrhosis, which is frequently caused by chronic alcohol use.
"Either alcohol is a panacea," Stockwell said, "or moderate drinking is really a marker of something else."
A common view is that certain types of alcohol provide significant health benefits — for instance, red wine has been linked with longer life and a lower risk of cancer. However, Stockwell says that it would be unlikely that the alcohol deserved the credit in these cases. When it comes to red wine, for example, research has tied these health benefits to a compound called resveratrol.
"There's a general idea out there that alcohol is good for us, because that's what you hear reported all the time," Stockwell said. "But there are many reasons to be skeptical."
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