At a time when some health experts have questioned whether any level of alcohol consumption is safe, an analysis of 16 years of health data for nearly 8,000 older Americans has found that moderate drinkers enjoyed lower mortality rates than heavy drinkers and non-drinkers. While the researchers did not find whether moderate drinkers lived longer because of alcohol consumption or because of other factors, their findings add another strong piece of evidence to the health debate.
Conducted by a team from Columbia University and Boston University and published by Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, the study comes at a time when alcohol consumption has been increasing in the U.S., especially among adults over 60. After years of research showing that moderate consumption is linked to better health, some doctors, particularly in the U.K. have recently argued that no level is safe, particularly because alcohol is a known carcinogen.
For this research, the team analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a long-term American study conducted by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration that has followed nearly 20,000 participants. The team focused on 7,904 participants born between 1931 and 1941 who had been asked about their drinking frequency and volume and whose health was tracked for 16 years.
Participants were classified into five categories: occasional drinkers (1 to 2 drinks per month), moderate drinkers (1 to 2 drinks per day for women and 1 to 3 drinks for men, on one or more days per week), heavy drinkers (more than 3 drinks per day for men and more than 2 for women), lifetime abstainers and current abstainers. The team defined one drink as equivalent to a 5-ounce glass of wine. The researchers also analyzed respondent wealth, smoking status and body-mass index to further understand mortality influences.
They found that abstainers had the highest mortality rate among both men and women, followed by heavy drinkers and then occasional drinkers. Women who drink moderately had the lowest mortality rate. Moderately drinking men had the lowest mortality rate among male participants. The team also found that smokers and people suffering from obesity had increased mortality rates regardless of drinking status.
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One of the key takeaways from the study, according to lead author Dr. Katherine Keyes of Columbia, is that long-term, moderate drinkers who refrain from quitting entirely due to illness, will enjoy greater longevity. As soon as moderate drinkers quit due to illness or medications, their mortality risk increases.
Dr. Keyes was quick to emphasize that correlation does not imply causation. People who drink moderately are typically wealthier, exercise more and eat better. “More wealthy people drink alcohol than people in lower socioeconomic statuses,” Keyes told Wine Spectator. “And we know that economic status is a predictor of longevity.”
Keyes strongly advises that high-risk drinking is bad for your health, and that caution should be taken when evaluating these results, as they are just a small current in the sea of scientific literature on the subject.
Going forward, she hopes that improvements in data collection will help confirm her findings. “Measuring alcohol consumption has been a problem in all kinds of dietary studies for decades,” she said. Trying to get people to remember how much they drink and understand standardized sizes isn’t easy, but luckily, there are advances such as wearable devices or momentary assessments that can improve measures. For now, the current data is promising for wine lovers.