Jeanne Calment picked up smoking at age 21. She enjoyed port wine and chocolates (two pounds a week by her own account). She is also the oldest documented living person. She died well into her 122nd year. Calment attributed her long life to laughing and staying calm.
Like explorers of old, scientists have sought the fountain of youth. Research into human longevity focuses equally on what to do and what not to do. It is unlikely that a pack-a-day smoker will reach the centenary mark, but in studies, alcohol has been both heralded and vilified with respect to its effects on health. This article explores the truth behind claims alcohol, consumed in moderation, is good for you.
The problem of defining abstinence
In 2015, researchers published a meta-analysis of alcohol consumption and mortality. They found estimates of the risks of death due to alcohol “are significantly altered by study design and characteristics.” The problem is with the abstainer control group.
Researchers note prior studies include former drinkers in this group. Data from these individuals skews findings in favor of positive results. In layman’s terms, a person who used to drink and quit will fare better than a person who continues to imbibe.
The other inherent flaw concerns older respondents. Researchers found as people age, they are inclined to reduce or eliminate their alcohol intake due to illness or other reasons. Inclusion of these individuals in the abstainer group also yields questionable results.
The potential benefits and drawbacks
Moderate drinking has been associated with a variety of health benefits that could increase longevity. It lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and raises the level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the good cholesterol. Moderate drinkers are less likely than nondrinkers to develop diabetes or gallstones.
The caveat regarding the benefits of moderate drinking is there are no absolutes. People who enjoy a cocktail in the evening may live into their 80s, but science is hard-pressed to attribute this to moderate drinking. Genetics, lifestyle, worldview and countless other factors affect a person’s health. This ambivalent state is best exemplified by the French paradox.
The French Paradox
The French do not eat well. They consume foods high in cholesterol and saturated fat. But as a people, the French have a low mortality rate. They also consume a lot of red wine. The combination of fatty foods, alcohol consumption and low mortality rate is known as the French paradox. And scientists have been studying this paradox since the 1980s.
Researchers speculate one reason why the French thrive has to do with drinking behavior. Unlike drinkers in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who traditionally whoop it up on weekends, the French consume the same amounts throughout the week. Studies comparing blood pressure levels of the two found the Irish consistently have elevated blood pressure levels on Mondays that only return to normal by Thursday. The French may drink more, but their bodies are able to metabolize it normally; thus, lower blood pressure.
While the science is still out on the effects of moderate drinking, there is no such ambiguity about alcohol abuse. Alcoholism can destroy bodies and minds. Sovereign Health Group’s alcohol treatment program focuses on the underlying causes that fuel addiction. If you have a drinking problem, contact our 24/7 helpline for more information on how we can help.
About the author:
Darren Fraser is a content writer for Sovereign Health Group. He worked two and half years as reporter and researcher for The Yomiuri Shimbun until they realized he did not read, speak or write Japanese and fired him. Undeterred, he channels his love of research into unearthing stories that provide hope to those dealing with addiction and mental illness. Darren loves the Montreal Canadiens hockey club and horror films and would prefer to enjoy these from the comforts of his family’s farm in Quebec. For more information about this media, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.