Recent headlines touted a link between daily alcohol consumption and a nearly 20-percent decrease in mortality risk — but those findings may be clouding the true relationship between alcohol and good health.
While a study of senior citizens did find a correlation between drinking two alcoholic beverages a day and increased longevity, the underlying reasons for this association aren't clear — and are likely not sufficient reason to celebrate booze as a health tonic, other research suggests.
The research in question is part of The 90+ Study, a massive, longitudinal study from the University of California, Irvine, that began in 1981 by surveying 14,000 senior citizens living in a retirement home. The initial participants answered questions about their health, hobbies and drinking habits involving alcohol, among other things. A 2007 paper published by the study's researchers found that seniors who drank two or more alcoholic drinks a day (it didn't matter what kind) had a 15-percent reduced risk of death compared to nondrinkers. [7 Ways Alcohol Affects Your Health]
"If in 1981 you were using alcohol, compared to people your same age who weren’t using alcohol, you lived longer," Dr. Claudia Kawas, a professor of neurology and neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, and one of the co-principal investigators for The 90+ Study, said at an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference on Saturday (Feb. 17).
"I have no explanation for it," Dr. Kawas added, "but I do firmly believe that modest drinking is associated with longevity."
Kawas is not alone in her thinking — various other studies have linked moderate drinking to reduced risk of heart attack, stroke, and other conditions. Findings like these come with significant caveats, however — which Kawas quickly pointed out to the AAAS audience. "Keep in mind that I start studying people when they’re 90," Kawas said. "I think it’s very likely that individuals who have very excessive alcohol intake at younger ages don’t even make it to their 90s."
Alcohol's health impacts
Kawas' disclaimer echoes mounting research that suggests that the more alcohol a person drinks, the more likely that person is to experience adverse health effects.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an estimated 88,000 Americans die from alcohol-related conditions every year, making it the third-greatest preventable cause of death in the United States after tobacco, poor diet and inactivity. Nearly 24,000 of these deaths were attributed to liver diseases, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Additionally, drinking alcohol has been associated with an increased risk of contracting seven types of cancers, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, with greater alcohol intake generally being associated with greater cancer risk.
Binge drinking — defined as downing at least four drinks for women or five drinks for men within a few hours — is especially dangerous. One 2014 study found that adults in their 50s and 60s who reported binge drinking once a week were twice as likely to die over the following 20 years as were adults of the same age who drank less.
So, where do alcohol's apparent longevity benefits come from? According to a 2016 meta-analysis of 87 studies linking alcohol consumption and longevity, casual drinking may be an indicator of other lifestyle factors related to good health rather than a cause.
Older individuals who abstain from drinking might do so because of existing health issues, the study said, or because they had problems with excessive drinking in the past. In other words, if a person is still drinking at age 90, their health is likely good enough for them to do so. Good health among senior citizens can be attributed to a multitude of other lifestyle factors including diet, exercise and strong social relationships, The 90+ study reported.
Because it's so hard to tease out cause and effect in studies like these, it's too soon to say whether moderate drinking is indeed a health benefit, a risk or neither. The bottom line is: If you drink, drink moderately and because you enjoy it — not because you want to live forever.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.