You will read me, from time to time, remarking that drinking alcohol is healthy, except in stupid amounts. I’m sorry for the moral campaigners and the teetotallers but facts are facts.
And I mean alcohol health benefits facts:
Fact 1. People who drink live longer on average than teetotallers. In fact those with the highest alcohol intake, for both men and women, death rates did not reach the same level as that abstainers! That’s pretty bad news for the moralizers.
Fact 2. There is “strong evidence” that alcohol protects against heart disease.
Fact 3. There is moderate evidence that alcohol protects against dementia.
Fact 4. The U.S. is not a heavy-drinking nation, yet its health outcomes are poor compared with other economically-advanced nations who drink much more on average. (For example, despite being heavily out-drunk by the English, Americans have almost exactly twice their levels of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease).
Daily wine drinking has been a health habit of the Old World for 1,000s of years!
So why isn’t this being talked about and made more widely known? American reactionary puritanism, basically.
Even as health bodies like the CDC and Dietary Guidelines for Americans (prepared by Health and Human Services) now recognize the decisive benefits from moderate drinking, each such announcement is met by an onslaught of opposition and criticism, and is always at risk of being reversed.
For example, when the Dietary Guidelines for Americans were released by the Department of Agriculture and HHS, there was uproar, including public denunciations from busybody Strom Thurmond, Senator for South Carolina, himself a teetoaller. Apparently he doesn’t like to drink, so nobody else must.
Noting that even drinking at non-pathological levels above recommended moderate limits gives you a better chance of a longer life than abstaining draws louder protests still. Yet that’s exactly what the evidence tells us.
Driven by the cultural residue of Temperance, most Americans still view drinking as unhealthy; many call alcohol toxic. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Aversion To The Truth
Larry King underwent a bypass procedure in 1987 following a heart attack. In 2007, he hosted a two-hour PBS special, “The Hidden Epidemic: Heart Disease in America”, about the pioneering Framingham Heart Study. King led a panel of five experts in a discussion of diet, sex, exercise, smoking — just about everything that people do that impacts the health of their hearts.
Everything, that is, except that beverage alcohol conveys heart health advantages, and that abstinence from alcohol is among the major risk factors for heart disease. It was never mentioned.
Not discussing the beneficial impact of alcohol on heart disease has been a systematic policy of the U.S. public health establishment. The National Institutes of Health, which funded the Framingham research, forbad Harvard epidemiologist Carl Seltzer from publishing the benefits of drinking, he later revealed.
Why hide the facts? If drinking good for you, people should be told.
But no, old beliefs and prejudices still stalk the halls of power and out-of-date attitudes are exalted above one of the most famous health studies of all time!
Epidemiological study after study (that is, research tracing drinkers, their consumption, and their life outcomes) produces consistent findings — there are now hundreds of such studies. But whenever any sort of research can be teased out to shakily suggest drinking is bad for you, it will be reported with a huge fanfare as the final “truth”!
An example of this twisted manipulation of the facts is that, when people with a gene associated with less alcohol consumption (including less binge drinking), as well as other effects, were found to have better outcomes, this highly indirect evidence — as opposed to research measuring actual drinking and heart disease — was cited to “prove” alcohol does not benefit the heart.
Yet in 2006, the Archives of Internal Medicine, an American Medical Association journal, published an analysis based on 34 well-designed prospective studies — that is, research which follows subjects for years, even decades. This meta-analysis, incorporating a million subjects, found that “1 to 2 drinks per day for women and 2 to 4 drinks per day for men are inversely associated with total mortality.”1
The more alcohol a society consumes, the fewer alcohol-related problems and alcohol-related deaths (including cirrhosis) it has.
Studies of drinking habits vs. health usually suffer from 2 fundamental snags:
- When people report their drinking habits, they mostly lie. I reckon it’s safe to DOUBLE what people claim they are doing. Ergo “safe intake” is approximately double what is claimed by naïve interviewers. The English and French habits more or less confirm this.
- The dangers of binge drinking are considerable (and stupid advice from health authorities is driving people to binge drinking). There is a world of difference between drinking 10 beverages in one night and drinking 2 or 3 beverages a day over a 7-day period.
So the more you drink — up to two drinks a day for woman, and four for men — the less likely you are to die, provided you drink regularly. If you only drink occasionally, you must be guarded when you do.
There is a small cadre of people who cannot drink “safely” and these are women with the “breast-cancer gene” mutations (BRCA1 and BRCA2) or a first-degree (mother, sister) relation who has had breast cancer, for whom alcohol consumption is far riskier.
Of course, frequent, heavy binge drinking is unhealthy. But then you knew that already, didn’t you? If you don’t distinguish binge drinking from daily moderate drinking, that would be due to some Americans’ puritanism, which causes them to interpret any daily drinking as addiction! It isn’t.
Additionally, objectors note, drinkers showing longevity may be wine-sniffling, upper-middle-class professionals. Now I’m prejudiced in favor of wine as the healthiest drink. But even I have to admit that virtually no study has ever found that the type of alcohol consumed impacts these results.
Alcohol Health Benefits Include Dementia Too
That’s important for us Boomers.
A 2008 Research Society on Alcoholism review noted: “In over half of nearly 45 reports since the early 1990s, significantly reduced risks of cognitive loss or dementia in moderate, non-binge consumers of alcohol (wine, beer, liquor) have been observed.” This finding has been affirmed numerous times, for example in this article based on the Whitehall Study, the British equivalent of Framingham.
Yet, even in the Whitehall study, in which “The authors concluded that for middle-aged subjects, increasing levels of alcohol consumption were associated with better function regarding some aspects of cognition,” the researchers cautioned, “it is not proposed that these findings be used to encourage increased alcohol consumption.”
What is comes down to is that despite all the evidence that drinking is good for you—and I repeat—even serious drinkers of 6 or more drinks a day, live longer than abstainers. Yet the onslaught of busybodies telling you not to drink continues virtually unchecked.
What about encouraging moderate alcohol consumption??? It’s good for you!
The fact is that alcohol is that happy combination: a pleasurable substance that also conveys health benefits. Those benefits are greatest if you drink moderately. But even drinking more than is “perfectly” recommended, without displaying clinical symptoms of problem drinking or alcohol dependence (and these are not subtle), is generally better for you than drinking nothing. The puritans can’t stand that.
I believe people have a right to know that drinking is among a list of positive health behaviors, along with good diet, not smoking and exercize.
As Stanton Peele remarked in an article entitled The Truth We Won’t Admit: Drinking Is Healthy, for Pacific Standard magazine,2 “Human beings have grown up alongside alcohol: Beverage alcohol has been found at the site of every early center of civilization. The more alcohol a society consumes, the fewer alcohol-related problems and alcohol-related deaths (including cirrhosis) it has, since these societies, such as those in Southern Europe, integrate drinking with social life.”
Arch Intern Med. 2006;166(22):2437-2445. doi:10.1001/archinte.166.22.2437