Maybe moderate drinking isn't so good for you after all

New research challenges the assumption that moderate drinking is good for our health.

Maybe moderate drinking isn't so good for you after all

Andy Towers, Massey University

We generally assume moderate drinking (two standard drinks per day) is good for our health.

This idea comes from studies over the past three decades showing moderate drinkers are healthier and less likely to die prematurely than those who drink more, less, or don’t drink at all.

I would be glad if this were true.

But our latest research challenges this view. We found while moderate drinkers are healthier than relatively heavy drinkers or non-drinkers, they are also wealthier. When we control for the influence of wealth, then alcohol’s apparent health benefit is much reduced in women aged 50 years or older, and disappears completely in men of similar age.

Health, wealth and alcohol intake
Limited research shows moderate drinking is linked to better health in older adults aged between 55 to 65. But this work failed to account for one of the main factors influencing both health and alcohol use: wealth.

To address this question, we explored whether older moderate drinkers are healthier because of their drinking, or because their wealth affords them healthier lifestyles.

We used data from 2908 older New Zealanders (average age 65) in the government-funded Health, Work and Retirement Study at Massey University. This is New Zealand’s foremost longitudinal ageing study, spanning 10 years, including a representative sample of the population aged 50 and over.

We split the adults aged 50 or older into groups reflecting their average level of drinking, from non-drinkers through to those drinking three or more drinks a day. We also made sure to clearly differentiate 'sick quitters' (those who stopped drinking due to poor health) from 'lifetime abstainers' (those who have never drunk alcohol).

We first compared the health of these groups and confirmed the trend in previous research: moderate drinkers of both sexes were much healthier than heavier drinkers or non-drinkers. This analysis relied on study participants rating their own health in terms of perceived levels of physical health and limitations in physical activity.

But we also found moderate drinkers of both sexes to be wealthier than heavier drinkers or non-drinkers. And, when we took wealth out of the equation, moderate alcohol use was not linked with better health in men. In women, moderate alcohol use was still linked with a health benefit, but given the few women drinking moderately (four per cent) this effect was questionable.

Our findings offer little support for a health-protective effect of moderate drinking. Instead, they suggest that older adults’ health and the amount they drink mainly reflect wealth and socioeconomic status.

Perhaps the relationship between alcohol intake and health in older drinkers reflects who is drinking not how much they drink.

Re-examining moderate alcohol intake
Thousands of studies spanning multiple decades show that alcohol use is linked with more than 200 health conditions and is responsible for six per cent of deaths worldwide. Scientists are still looking for a plausible mechanism that would allow alcohol – a carcinogen and a key predictor of sickness and early death – to have a health-protective effect.

Researchers are also increasingly concerned about the validity of previous claims on the health benefits of moderate drinking. Reviews of studies supporting a relationship between alcohol and health show many grouped 'sick quitters' (previous drinkers who stopped due to poor health) with those who have never regularly drunk alcohol. The presence of these sick ex-drinkers in analyses makes the health of non-drinkers seem much poorer than that of moderate drinkers.

Many studies also failed to account for differences between moderate drinkers and other groups on factors known to predict health; moderate drinkers tend to have better wealth, education, physical activity levels and diet. After controlling for such differences as we recently did, there is little evidence that moderate alcohol consumption has a health benefit compared with lifetime abstention or occasional drinking.

Older adults beware
Older adults are now a rapidly growing population for whom alcohol use can have serious ramifications and we must consider any claims of health benefits cautiously.

Compared to younger adults, older adults are at greater risk of poor health outcomes from drinking alcohol. Older adults process alcohol less effectively, are more likely to have health conditions that alcohol can worsen and to use medications that alcohol interferes with.

Yet, recent research indicates newly retiring baby boomers are drinking more alcohol, more often, than previous generations of retirees. And many older adults still assume moderate drinking is beneficial, some actively drinking for 'medicinal purposes'.

Older drinkers are one of the most at-risk populations from alcohol-related harm, yet they are also one of our least understood drinking groups.

If drinking has no benefits for older adults’ health and they are at increased risk of alcohol-related harm, then how much is too much for older adults to drink? My international colleagues and I are trying to answer this question.

The Conversation

Andy Towers, Senior Lecturer, School of Public Health, Massey University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


    To make a comment, please register or login
    Ted Wards
    16th Feb 2017
    Unfortunately the studies dont look at other benefits such as spouses being able to stand each other and not harm each other. Social drinking is one of the only real social situations left now that doesn't involve ignoring people and texting those who you wish you were with. If the effects were as bad as they say then they would stop it. But lets face it, the government is known for looking at profit rather than health results. Lets look at smoking and asbestos etc. All well known to be harmful but not stopped because of profit.
    The pom
    16th Feb 2017
    As a man well into my 80s I hope my daily bike ride and weights work coupled with my non drinking and sensible diet will allow me to get old.
    The pom
    16th Feb 2017
    I didn't mention that I stopped smoking a bit over 65 years ago, so I don't have to worry about that
    16th Feb 2017
    Eat, drink and be merry in moderation.
    16th Feb 2017
    Or is it that if you are wealthy you pour your wine from a bottle not a plastic and cardboard box!
    16th Feb 2017
    16th Feb 2017
    What a load of cock. Everyone knows it is who sponsors (read pays) the said research.

    My husband's Father and Grandmother lived until 95. Each ate and drank differently. My mother drank every day and lived til 90 and only died then when she fell and cracked her head. I must also add, none of them were walkers or runners..pottering around in the garden was the extent of their exercise.

    Depends on lots of different things, including luck.
    16th Feb 2017
    Oops, it pays to read what you wrote :( and I cannot see anywhere to edit it.

    I meant to write CROCK.....
    16th Feb 2017
    Ha ha halona. You may have been right in the first place.

    Maybe people who become wealthy (and therefore healthy?), get rich BECAUSE they drink moderately. Like Ted Wards says at the top, a drink may be what gets you through the day without becoming too disagreeable. Of course, that can go too far the other way, where one more drink actually STARTS an argument.
    16th Feb 2017
    That's what my husband set, lol.

    He also pointed out, that friends of ours, who are very, very well off drink wine out of a cask...and neither of them are healthy, so all in all , twaddle....each to their own :)
    The Other Judith
    16th Feb 2017
    This is just another move from the Temperance movement under other names and they are having a go in all first world countries. Moderate drinking has been proven by solid research to be beneficial.
    Dave V
    17th Feb 2017
    Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I can't see anywhere in this article where it says that a moderate drinker will be less healthy than a non drinker.
    The Other Judith
    17th Feb 2017
    "Our findings offer little support for a health-protective effect of moderate drinking. Instead, they suggest that older adults’ health and the amount they drink mainly reflect wealth and socioeconomic status."

    This is an attempt to undermine the large body of evidence which has found that moderated drinking is beneficial. This is a typical game played by researchers with an agenda and has resulted in the public being confused by conflicting health messages.
    17th Feb 2017
    I'll drink to that!
    17th Jun 2017
    Drinking alcohol shrinks your brain and makes your liver wear out with all the hard work it does to filter it. There is no nutritional benefit. It is also a depressant. May temporarily lift you up then you have to come back down.

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