In our days of COVID-19 shutdowns, wine drinkers have embraced virtual happy hours, gathering to chat by video and raise a glass. And a new study suggests that drinking wine with friends offers more health benefits than drinking alone.
When it comes to older adults, the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption have been linked to increased longevity, lowered risk of Alzheimer's disease, decreased risk of pulmonary disease in men, decreased risk of dementia and other health advantages. A team of researchers from the University of Central Florida at Orlando (UCF) recently attempted to determine whether there are intrinsic benefits to moderate alcohol consumption for older adults or if these positive health outcomes could be a byproduct of other factors.
According to their study, published in the journal The Gerontologist, they questioned whether published studies on the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption for the elderly population could be attributed to the lifestyle adopted by these moderate drinkers rather than alcohol itself as a substance. Their theory was that moderate drinking correlated to how often respondents socialized and that this increase in social activities is what produced the positive health outcomes.
To test their theory the scientists examined data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a comprehensive database that tracked the health and social tendencies, including drinking habits, of older American adults from 1992 to 2018. The database is a repository on health, retirement and aging data of about 20,000 adults over 50 living in the United States.
The UCF researchers homed in on specific metrics: reported rates of depression, reported functional levels in daily living, alcohol consumption and socializing patterns. They designed two studies using the HRS data, focusing their attention on approximately 2,300 individuals over the age of 65.
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The first study looked at rates of depression. They used two statistical models and, after accounting for certain variables that affect rates of moderate drinking such as gender, relative age, education level and other factors, they divided the group into moderate drinkers and alcohol abstainers.
They then looked at answers on questionnaires intended to gauge particpants' levels of depression and socializing. As the researchers expected, the moderate drinking group exhibited lower rates of depression than the abstaining group. But they also noticed that the moderate drinking group had a much higher socialization rate. "Moderate drinking was associated with more frequent contact with friends," they noted.
When the mediating effect of socialization is removed from the data, alcohol consumption by itself does not affect depression rate, they reported. The authors concluded that older adults who drink moderately tend to have a more active social life and theorize that socialization is the key factor in warding off depression in older adults.
Their second study looked at respondents’ functional limitations, or ability to accomplish everyday tasks such as using a telephone, doing laundry or handling finances.
Once more, the researchers were not surprised when they found moderate drinkers were more functional in daily living than abstainers. But they found that while moderate drinkers did tend to be more functional, they also had more active social lives, better social networks and a greater number of social interactions. As with the first study, the investigators posited that alcohol alone, without the mediating effect of socialization, would not account for the fact that moderate drinkers have fewer functional limitations than their abstaining counterparts.
The authors emphasized that their objective was to look at the data more critically, targeting and defining the lifestyle of the moderate drinker. "One possible interpretation of the current data is that moderate alcohol consumption invites opportunity for social interaction, such as at happy hour, which has a lasting beneficial impact on mood and health,” they wrote. “Future research should explore additional mechanisms through which the impact of moderate alcohol use on functional ability may be explained."
As lead author Rosanna Scott explained to Wine Spectator, the team was not trying to dismiss alcohol's potential health benefits—just understand them better. "We are giving social interaction, rather than moderate alcohol use, most of the credit when it comes to improvements in mood, and some of the credit regarding improvements in functional status," she said in an email. "That being said, alcohol has long been referred to as a social lubricant. Given this, we recommend increased social interaction—with or without moderate drinking [emphasizing that people should consult their doctors before starting drinking]—for older adults, particularly those with concerns about their mood or functional abilities. A glass of wine or cocktail in the afternoon is a delightful thing for many of us, and moderate drinkers may derive even more benefit from that time by sharing it with others."