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Alcohol for Longer Life? How Much Is Enough and How Much Is Too Much?

Is alcohol for longer life a viable concept or a myth? How many drinks count as moderate alcohol consumption? Studies tackle these questions.
Alcohol for Longer Life? How Much Is Enough and How Much Is ...
Older adult female offering a bottle of wine and glass sitting alone

The benefits and risks of alcohol consumption have been controversial for decades. Some studies suggest that “moderate” amounts of alcohol have health benefits. In other words, people who drink a little alcohol for longer life may be doing themselves some good. Other experts maintain that even moderate alcohol consumption will shorten your life. Confusing? You bet! However, a new study confirms that drinking a little helps people with heart disease (BMC Medicine, July 27, 2021). Moreover, previous research spelled out how much alcohol is enough to be beneficial and how much is harmful (PLoS Medicine, June 19, 2018). The results might surprise you. First, though, the opposing perspectives.

Alcohol for Longer Life Proponents:

The Mayo Clinic reports on its website that moderate alcohol consumption can:

  • “Reduce your risk of developing and dying from heart disease
  • “Possibly reduce your risk of ischemic stroke (when the arteries to your brain become narrowed or blocked, causing severely reduced blood flow)
  • “Possibly reduce your risk of diabetes”

The experts for the Mayo Clinic define “moderate” alcohol consumption as:

  • One drink a day for women.
  • Two drinks a day for men under 65 and one drink for older men
  • A drink equals a 5-ounce glass of wine or a 12-ounce glass of beer. A drink of liquor equals 1.5 ounces.

Alcohol for Longer Life Opponents:

A systematic review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (online, March 22, 2016)  reports:

“Estimates of mortality risk from alcohol are significantly altered by study design and characteristics. Meta-analyses adjusting for these factors find that low-volume alcohol consumption has no net mortality benefit compared with lifetime abstention or occasional drinking. These findings have implications for public policy, the formulation of low-risk drinking guidelines, and future research on alcohol and health.”

Alcohol and Dementia?

Even more confusing is the data regarding alcohol consumption and Alzheimer’s disease. Some research suggests that alcohol consumption is bad for the brain.

Norwegian investigators reported (European Journal of Epidemiology, online, May 13, 2015):

“The present study finds that frequent alcohol consumption is associated with a higher dementia risk compared to infrequent alcohol consumption. The same pattern of associations is indicated for Alzheimer’s disease and for vascular dementia, but the latter results were not statistically significant.”

Other research suggests that moderate alcohol consumption may reduce the risk for dementia: (Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, online, Aug. 11, 2011)

“We reviewed 143 papers that described the relationship between moderate drinking of alcohol and some aspect of cognition…Overall, light to moderate drinking does not appear to impair cognition in younger subjects and actually seems to reduce the risk of dementia and cognitive decline in older subjects.”

Bewildered? We don’t blame you. People who drink a lot clearly suffer from serious heart problems, strokes and cancer. They may also develop cognitive decline and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, light alcohol consumption may help the brain.

The Latest Research on Alcohol for Longer Life:

A new meta-analysis of nearly 50,000 men and women from the UK suggests that light-to-moderate drinking can reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes and death in people with diagnosed cardiovascular disease (BMC Medicine, July 27, 2021). Graphing survival against alcohol consumption gave a J-shaped curve, with the lowest risk at 7 g/day of alcohol. A standard drink–a 12-ounce beer or a glass of wine–contains 14 g. So people who took about half a drink a day achieved the benefits of alcohol for longer life. These data were obtained from the UK Biobank and health surveys from England and Scotland. A meta-analysis of a dozen other studies corroborated these conclusions.

Comparing Light and Heavy Alcohol Consumption:

The definition of light alcohol consumption vs. heavy alcohol consumption is critical to the understanding of the seeming confusion. A study published in PLOS Medicine (June 19, 2018)  tracked roughly 100,000 people for nearly nine years. Light alcohol drinkers (defined as just one to three drinks a week) were less likely to develop cancer or die prematurely compared to abstainers or “heavy” drinkers. The scientists defined heavy drinkers as those who consumed two to three alcoholic beverages a day. Very heavy drinkers (more than three alcoholic beverages a day) were much more likely to get cancer or die during the study.

The authors concluded:

“The study supports a J-shaped association between alcohol and mortality in older adults, which remains after adjustment for cancer risk. The results indicate that intakes below 1 drink per day were associated with the lowest risk of death.”

The Bottom Line on Alcohol for Longer Life:

A idea of a J-shaped curve is fascinating. In practical terms, it means that people who never drink alcohol have a slightly higher risk of cancer and death than those who indulge occasionally. People who usually consume more than three drinks a day run a much bigger risk. Consequently, the sweet spot seems to be lower alcohol consumption than previously described, namely one to three drinks a week. The latest data from the UK Biobank study fall within that range, too.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
  • Ding C et al, "Association of alcohol consumption with morbidity and mortality in patients with cardiovascular disease: Original data and meta-analysis of 48,423 men and women." BMC Medicine, July 27, 2021. DOI https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-021-02040-2
  • Kunzmann QT et al, "The association of lifetime alcohol use with mortality and cancer risk in older adults: A cohort study." PLOS Medicine, June 19, 2018. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002585
  • Stockwell T et al, "Do “moderate” drinkers have reduced mortality risk? A systematic review and meta-analysis of alcohol consumption and all-cause mortality." Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, March 22, 2016. https://doi.org/10.15288/jsad.2016.77.185
  • Langballe EM et al, "Alcohol consumption and risk of dementia up to 27 years later in a large, population-based sample: the HUNT study, Norway." European Journal of Epidemiology, online, May 13, 2015. doi: 10.1007/s10654-015-0029-2
  • Neafsey EM & Collins MA, "Moderate alcohol consumption and cognitive risk." Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, online, Aug. 11, 2011. doi: 10.2147/NDT.S23159
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