Is drinking good or bad for our health? Will it help prevent certain conditions but raise our risks of others? Adding to the conversation, one study suggests that those of us who do drink alcohol—moderately or less, that is—might live longer.
Given the confusion, researchers have continually explored the effects of alcohol consumption on our health, and specifically on how long we live. For example, a study conducted at the University of Austin at Texas in 2010, followed adults between ages 55 and 65 over 20 years, monitoring their alcohol use (or lack of use) as well as lifespan (or risk of dying prematurely).[i] They found that participants who drank moderately tended to live longer than those who drank heavily or not at all and even those who drank only a little. Specifically, non-drinkers were twice as likely to die prematurely that moderate drinkers. Moderate drinking was considered one to three drinks per day.
More recently, in January 2014, researchers in Sweden published results of a study on the relationship between low-to-moderate alcohol consumption and mortality.[ii] In a study population of middle-aged and older men and women who were followed for 15 years, the researchers found that women and men who drank lightly (a half a drink per day for women, one and a half for men) lived longer than nondrinkers: up to 17 months longer for women and up to 15 months longer for men.
Moderate or low seem to be the key words when it comes to alcohol consumption and longevity. According to the 2010 study in Texas, participants who consumed a modest amount (not too much or too little) of alcohol had the lowest risk of death. Heavy drinkers were 70 percent more likely to die than moderate drinkers, and light drinkers (those who drank fewer than one to three drinks per day) were 23 percent more likely to die than their moderate counterparts. The Swedish researchers also found that alcohol consumption beyond the modest level where they observed a benefit was linked with a rising risk of death; in other words, the more people drank in excess of the beneficial level, the shorter their lifespan.
We don’t really know why moderate drinkers are living longer. It may be that sharing wine, beer, or spirits (not excessively) can be a positive social experience, building relationships and support that contribute to our overall well-being. A little alcohol can also help reduce stress and promote relaxation. And there’s the consideration that alcohol itself may have a protective physiological effect, though this wasn’t part of this study.
The bottom line is that if you don’t currently drink, we’re not recommending that you start drinking to reduce your risk of death. You can, after all, enjoy some of the assumed benefits of alcohol, such as social interaction and stress relief, with alternatives like a coffee date or brisk walk. There are also some serious health risks associated with drinking, and it’s certainly not for everyone. But if you do drink moderately and responsibly (particularly if you’re an older adult, as in this study population), it’s possible that glass isn’t harming your health and might even be adding years to your life.
Late-Life Alcohol Consumption and 20-Year Mortality. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research [early online publication]. August 24, 2010.
Late-Life Alcohol Consumption and 20-Year Mortality. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research [early online publication]. August 24, 2010