A new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that moderate alcohol consumption—two drinks a day for men and one for women—is part of a healthy lifestyle. Specifically, the study says moderate alcohol is one of four low-risk lifestyle behaviors that together can reduce mortality rates by 63 percent, compared to people who do not partake in any of the behaviors. The other three behaviors are never smoking, a healthy diet and sufficient exercise.
Part of the federal health department, the CDC is the nation's top public health agency, organizing health promotion and disease prevention and conducting research to inform health policies. The decision to include moderate alcohol use as a beneficial behavior suggests a changing attitude among health organizations toward alcohol. The most recently revised 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans includes a section on potential benefits of moderate drinking.
In the new study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, CDC researchers analyzed the data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III mortality study. The larger study originally consisted of over 20,000 participant interviews from 1988 to 1994. There were followup interviews in 2006 with 16,958 participants.The scientists used that data to give each individual a score based on four low risk behaviors. For example, if someone never smoked, drank alcohol moderately, exercised sufficiently but did not have a healthy diet, they would earn 3 out of a possible 4 points. They then compared participants' scores with mortality status.
The researchers compared combinations of behaviors to gauge the effectiveness of each behavior. Never smoking, defined as having smoked less than 100 cigarettes in one’s lifetime, was the largest risk reducer among the four. While all four behaviors together yielded the best results, the combination of never smoking, moderate alcohol use and a healthy diet offered a close second in risk reduction.
The scientists categorized cause of death into three broad categories including major cardiovascular disease, malignant neoplasms (cancer) and other causes. Moderate alcohol use showed the largest impact on cardiovascular disease.
Researchers were clearly aware of the complex nature of alcohol’s potential health benefits and the danger in promoting alcohol use. In fact, the CDC’s official press release for the study claims “limiting alcohol consumption” is the healthy lifestyle behavior studied. However, while excessive alcohol use is indeed considered a high-risk behavior in the study text, no alcohol intake is a high-risk category as well.
Although the CDC clearly states on its website that excessive alcohol use is dangerous, it has held studies in recent years that explore potential benefits of moderate alcohol use including the reduced risk of stroke for female wine drinkers.
Considering the potential dangers of excessive drinking, the CDC researchers ran their study again, omitting moderate alcohol use and scoring participants one to three for low-risk behaviors. For those with all three behaviors, the reduction in risk of death was 55 percent, still impressive but an 8 percent decrease from the data that included moderate alcohol use.