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Health Watch: Secret to a Happy Marriage? Share Your Wine

Study finds married couples with similar drinking patterns report happier relationships
Photo by: pixdeluxe/iStock
Couples who enjoy wine in similar amounts are more likely to find longterm bliss, a study found.

Christine Dalton, Samantha Falewée
Posted: July 27, 2016

Hold off on couples counseling. What if you could assuage your marriage problems by sharing a nice bottle of Chablis with your partner? A new study from the University of Michigan found that drinking alcohol actually promotes marital bliss—as long as your spouse is drinking along with you. Otherwise, you're better off both passing on the Chardonnay.

Previous research has looked at the relationship between young couples and alcohol use, but this study, published June 27 in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, focused specifically on the drinking patterns of older couples to understand long-term impact of drinking habits on relationships.

Because of the well-documented health and social risks associated with binge drinking and other alcohol-use disorders, conventional wisdom holds that excessive drinking leads to marital unrest. The scientists found, however, that the greater predictor of marital dissatisfaction was discordant drinking, or when a heavy drinker is married to a light drinker or abstainer.

Similarly, when two similar drinkers are married, they are more likely to experience wedded bliss and see their marital quality improve over time.

The scientists analyzed data on alcohol use and marital relationships in 2,767 couples from the larger Health and Retirement Study. All participants were born in 1953 or earlier and were interviewed twice over the span of four years.

In the first interview, participants were asked questions to determine their drinking habits. In both interviews, they also answered questions about their marriage, such as, "How often does your spouse make too many demands on you?" or "How often does he or she get on your nerves?"

The scientists did not find significant evidence that the amount of alcohol consumed mattered, as long as both partners were drinking some amount of alcohol. That being said, study author Kira Birditt clarified, "We’re not suggesting that people should drink more or change the way they drink."

She did, however, offer a hypothesis for the findings: "It could be that couples that do more leisure-time activities together have better marital quality." Couples who are attending parties with friends or going out to dinner and sharing a bottle of wine are more likely to enjoy each others' company.

Not-So Bitter News

Alcohol's relationship to breast cancer is complex. Several studies have shown that regular alcohol consumption, whether wine, beer or liquor, raises the risk of the disease. But some studies have found that red wine and its chemical components are potential breast-cancer preventatives.

Now a recent study from the University of Illinois has found that hops, used to make beer, may protect women from developing breast cancer, adding yet another layer to the debate.

Hops, which are the flowers of the hop plant, are most commonly used in beer making. They provide flavoring and stability during the brewing process. But hops are also used by many women as a botanical dietary supplement. The supplements can be taken as a sleep aid, and increasingly, to treat postmenopausal symptoms.

A University of Illinois study, published in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology, examines the use of hops for postmenopausal-symptom relief. The study explains that hormone therapy, the standard treatment for symptoms like night sweats and fatigue, has been shown to increase breast-cancer risk. During hormone therapy, women experience prolonged exposure to estrogen, and higher estrogen levels are associated with increased postmenopausal breast-cancer risks.

As an alternative to hormone therapy, hops eliminate this detrimental exposure to estrogen while treating postmenopausal symptoms. And on top of that, the researchers also found that hops can moderate other carcinogenic estrogen-chemical reactions. This could potentially protect women from breast cancer.

Strong Opinion

Recent headlines in the U.K. were not so mixed when it comes to alcohol and cancer. Two newspapers ran front-page stories this month claiming that a new scientific study shows that alcohol causes several cancers. One catch, however: The stories were not based on a new study, but on an opinion piece.

The essay, published in the Society for the Study of Addiction’s scholarly journal, Addiction, and written by Jennie Connor, a professor at the Department of Preventative and Social Medicine at the University of Otago, New Zealand, reviewed past studies to assert that "epidemiological evidence supports a causal association of alcohol consumption with cancers at seven sites: oropharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum and female breast."

Connor cites several solid studies to support this claim. The U.K.'s Million Women cohort study in 2009 found that women who drank between 70 to 140 grams of alcohol (roughly 5 to 10 glasses of wine) per week had a 5 percent increase in cancer risk, and a 13 percent increase in breast-cancer risk, compared to women who drank less than 20 grams (1.4 glasses) per week.

Other studies have found evidence that alcohol can decrease the risk of certain cancers. But Connor questions these findings, noting that self-reported consumption is often underestimated and that the frequency patterns of drinking (for example, 5 glasses of wine every Saturday vs. 1 glass of wine five days a week) are not fully examined or differentiated.

Her main assertion is that while past studies have stated that alcohol has a correlational relationship with cancer, she believes it should be labeled as causational. In plain terms, she believes that alcohol is the cause of these cancers, dismissing other possible factors.

The links between alcohol and cancer certainly demand more research. But the scientific evidence shows the topic is far more complex than one opinion.

Wimberly Miree
Birmingham, AL, USA —  July 27, 2016 2:17pm ET
I was delighted to see that a study has indicated that sharing wine with your spouse or others, strengthens the social relationship among those with whom you share.

My personal experience takes this even further. Once I reached a point in my wine journey (about 40 years ago) where I was collecting high-end wines, I discovered that drinking great wines by myself was quite depressing. I wanted to discuss the wines with someone, but didn't want to appear "bragging" about it, and also I recognized some resentment when I told someone (who had obviously not been invited) about my experience.

Since I became aware of this, I hardly ever open a great wine without sharing it with other wine knowledgeable friends. And the "shared experience" greatly enhances the thrill of drinking a great wine! And by the way, my wife is my best among many wine friends! And further, we are all regularly sharing the best wines in our cellars.

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