The United States has a strange relationship with alcohol. On one hand, kegs and sangria pitchers are as much a part of college life as classes and exams. As we grow older, we keep drinking; we pair wine with dinner, beer with football.
Yet not even a century ago, this country ratified the 18th Amendment, a failed effort to get Americans to stop drinking. There are, of course, legitimate concerns about drinking. It impairs our ability to think clearly, and for some people, it may cause drastic and dangerous changes in personality. But studies over the years have suggested that, in moderation, drinking can actually significantly reduce mortality risk, although critics have contended that these studies were poorly controlled.
But in a new study from the University of Texas at Austin, researchers tracked almost 2,000 people between the ages of 55 and 65 over a 20-year span and found that 41 percent of moderate drinkers — people who consumed between one and three drinks daily — had died, compared to 69 percent of abstainers and 60 percent of heavy drinkers, or people who consumed three or more drinks daily. More importantly, this is the first study to address and control for many of the factors once used to dispute the claim that drinking in moderation can be beneficial for one’s health.
For this study, participants provided lifestyle data in addition to self-reporting alcohol consumption so that researchers could control for factors that impact mortality risk, from physical and emotional health problems to gender and diet. One of the main critiques of these earlier studies was that recovering alcoholics or problem drinkers that no longer drank could be included in abstainer groups, possibly raising the mortality risk of the abstainer group because of their past drinking. But even when prior drinking problems and all lifestyle variables were controlled for, abstainers still had a significantly higher mortality risk than moderate or light drinkers.
This study draws attention to an ongoing question: Why is moderate drinking beneficial? The answer isn’t definite, but there are at least two ways in which drinking can improve health. First, alcohol reduces the risk for heart disease by decreasing the frequency of blood clots and increasing the amount of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good cholesterol,” in blood, which helps to keep arteries clear of plaques. A better understanding of this process would strengthen the argument for light and moderate drinking.
The second, more obvious benefit of drinking is its ability to relax us. Not too long ago, alcohol was used as an anesthetic for surgeries before the development of laughing gas. Although nowadays we use more sophisticated drugs, our ancestors were onto something. A glass of wine can be stress-relieving and data from many studies suggest that light and moderate drinkers are more social — and therefore more likely to be relaxed — than abstainers or heavy drinkers. In short, this new study suggests that there is no need to choose between drinking and one’s health; healthy people are more likely to drink a little, and people who drink a little are more likely to be healthy.
There’s no need for us to return to the alcohol-happy 1960s of “Mad Men,” with people nursing perpetual hangovers. But rather than always viewing alcohol as a bad thing, we should take a step back and reconsider that most things in moderation are good for us. So the next time you drink a glass of wine at dinner or have a beer at a party (legally, of course!), give a toast to life.
Saheli Sadanand is a fourth-year graduate student in immunobiology.