However, there's been some debate over these findings, with critics arguing that the researchers may have overestimated the benefits of moderate drinking by not taking into account possible health problems among non-drinkers. For example, some non-drinkers may previously have been heavy drinkers and be in poorer health as a result, or perhaps they had to give up drinking because of other health problems. They might also be less sociable and more prone to depression, or have other habits that can increase their risk of health issues.To better gauge how moderate drinking might affect a person's longevity, researchers have now done a large, long-term study taking several of these variables into account. Their conclusion: Older adults who drink moderate amounts of alcohol do indeed tend to live longer than those who drink none.
The study included 1,824 adults who were age 55 to 65 at the start of the research. Each person answered detailed questions about their health, drinking habits, drinking history, income, education, physical activity, and other social, behavioral and lifestyle factors. The researchers then followed up with them over 20 years, tracking who died during this period.
When the researchers adjusted their findings to account only for people's age and sex, they found that non-drinkers were more than twice as likely to have died during the study as moderate drinkers. These differences lessened—but remained significant—when researchers took into account other factors, including people's drinking history. In their final analysis, the researchers found that non-drinkers were 49 percent more likely to have died during the study than moderate drinkers.The study defined moderate drinking as consuming at least one unit of alcohol a day but less than three. A unit is approximately 14 grams of pure alcohol, which is found in 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer and one shot (1.5 ounces) of hard liquor. (Incidentally, U.S. dietary guidelines define moderate drinking as no more than one to two units a day for men, and no more than one for women.)
The researchers also found that people who drank lightly (less than a full unit of alcohol a day) were nearly as likely as moderate drinkers to still be alive after 20 years. And, not surprisingly, those who drank heavily (three or more units a day) were 42 percent more likely to have died during the study than moderate drinkers.This study provides some of the best evidence to date linking moderate drinking to a longer lifespan. However, it wasn't without flaws. For example, the study didn't include people who were lifelong abstainers, so we can't say how they compare with moderate drinkers. Also, the researchers asked about people's drinking habits only at the start of the study. So they don't know how people's drinking patterns might have changed over the next 20 years, and whether this might have affected their risk of dying. They also can't say whether changing your drinking habits might help you live longer if you're currently a non-drinker.
We need more research to examine these issues and also who is most likely to benefit from moderate drinking. Some studies have suggested that women who drink in moderation may have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer. But research also shows that moderate drinking can raise levels of "good" (HDL) cholesterol and provide other heart-health benefits. It has also been linked to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and gallstones.
What you need to know. It's too soon to recommend moderate drinking as a way to live longer. But if you already drink in moderation, you might offer this toast with extra conviction the next time you raise a glass with friends: "To your health."
—Sophie Ramsey, patient editor, BMJ Group
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