Health Benefits of Moderate Drinking Challenged

Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol for good health — as reflected in the hopes of raised glasses since time immemorial and validated scientifically in recent years — has been challenged in a new study by researchers in Italy, where, mind you, criticizing wine is tantamount to blasphemy.

In a study of more than 3,000 adults ages 70 to 79, researchers found that lifestyle factors such as exercise and diet, more so than light-to-moderate alcohol consumption, are better associated with good health.

That is, having a drink or two per day simply might be something that healthy people do and is not necessarily the reason for that good health. The study, from an international team led by researchers at the University of Ferrara in Ferrara, Italy, is detailed in the October issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

But before you punt the port, note that there are caveats. The study's strength is its ability to assess the role of potential confounding factors in explaining the often observed relationship between alcohol and good health. For now, however, these findings only apply to mobility and cognitive health among senior adults.

Glass half filled

Moderate drinkers tend to live longer than abstainers and heavy drinkers. Numerous studies have demonstrated a classic U-shaped relationship between alcohol consumption and all-cause mortality, where the risk of death goes down with a few drinks per week and then starts to climb once you start tossing back a few too many.

The primary reason seems to be a lower risk of cardiovascular disease from moderate drinking and, alas, subsequent damage to your liver and social standing once you start abusing alcohol. And this makes sense physiologically. Alcohol, for example, can thin the blood and thus reduce the risk of clotting arteries, much like aspirin and other pharmaceutical blood thinners.

Yet in the past decade, as researchers perhaps became drunk on all the positive studies on moderate alcohol consumption, booze became associated with all that was good. A daily nip was seen to improve everything from cognitive capability to conquering the common cold.

With little biological reasoning to support a causal relationship, however, most of these associations have remained on shaky ground.

Sobering reality

The Italian-led team questioned the purported relationship between alcohol intake and important geriatric outcomes such as cognitive impairment, falls and functional decline. In their study the researchers found that the moderate drinkers indeed did better with these outcomes compared to the heavy drinkers and non-drinkers. But then they dug deeper.

The researchers adjusted for characteristics related to lifestyle, such as physical activity, body weight, education and income. The more they accounted for lifestyle, the less they saw the importance of alcohol consumption for these positive outcomes. That is, being thinner, wealthier and more active mattered more. And then they dug even deeper.

Why would abstaining from alcohol appear to result in a poorer health outcome? Maybe, the researchers said, one must stop drinking due to medication for a serious illness. Or maybe one is too sick or frail to want to drink.

None of this, fortunately, implies that a glass of fine wine or hoppy autumn beer is bad for your. The take-home message, at least for older folks, is that they should stick with proven interventions — exercise and diet — to improve or maintain their health. And then drink if they want.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.