Reasons to Drink

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There are a growing number of reasons to drink alcohol.

No, no, I don't mean because my girlfriend left me or because it's so terribly cold in the big city (the Kyoto Accord against global warming must be working perfectly). I mean that drinking appears to be associated with health benefits:

  • Back in 1981, ACSH Advisor David Klurfeld noted the improved heart health of people who regularly drink red wine.
  • One year ago, the Lancet ran a study showing that light to moderate alcohol consumption (one to three drinks per day) reduced the risk of dementia in the elderly the opposite of what one might have intuited.
  • Women who averaged a half to quarter drink daily lowered their risk of high blood pressure, according to a March 11, 2002 report in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
  • In July 2002, a British Medical Journal report found that the likelihood of dying from a given rate of alcohol consumption decreases with age. They recommended that women limit their drinking to one unit a day up to age forty-four but counseled women to limit themselves to three units a day over age seventy-five, while suggesting men limit themselves to four units a day between the ages of fifty-five and eighty-four, hardly the most abstemious regimen.
  • And now, in the January 9, 2003 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine comes news that males who drink three or four days a week are about 30% less likely to have heart attacks than males who drink on average less than one drink per week.

None of this stopped Christine Gorman from complaining in the January 27, 2003 issue of Time that the studies showing health benefits from alcohol are thus far epidemiological rather than clinical and randomized (we don't know for sure how else the lifestyles of those moderate alcohol drinkers differ from their similar but non-drinking counterparts might there be something else beneficial about being French, for instance?). Gorman worries that people are more interested in the cardiac benefits of alcohol than in the similar benefits of eating nuts, and she notes that some groups, including African-Americans, do not show the same cardiac benefits from moderate alcohol consumption.

Luckily, Gorman's worries need not be a permanent impediment to confident, health-conscious booze intake.

In the same January 9 issue of the New England Journal, the editors suggest that the time may have come to do just what Gorman says we've thus far failed to do: conduct randomized, clinical trials to weed out confounding factors (is it red wine per se, a chemical in red wine, any type of alcohol at all...?).

It should be no trouble at all signing up an eager and scientifically-curious America for such trials, especially college students with their thirst for knowledge, judging by all the studies lately labeling us a nation of "binge drinkers." And a look at the fine print on those studies reveals that "binge drinking" is defined, roughly, as anything more than three drinks in a single sitting. It just so happens that that low threshold is not much greater than the amount that some of the health-benefit studies appear to recommend for improved health.

This is not to say that bingeing is a good idea especially not with all the still-relevant risks associated with excessive drinking, from vomiting and liver damage to accidentally speaking the truth aloud and sadly, since the health benefits from alcohol seem to come in middle age and later, the college students may not be all that useful in the experiments. But the recent studies do make me think I was a bit too hasty in dismissing alcohol consumption as irrational a decade or so ago, when I was a teetotaler.

I have certainly revised my position on the rationality of drinking to stay warm on cold days, an issue of great importance with temperatures hovering around zero in New York City right now. Since alcohol lowers body temperature, I used to think, all those people drinking to stay warm were making a big mistake. Now I realize that the subjective sensation of warmth is about all that matters, and some capillary dilation can help warm the outermost layer of skin, unless one actually faces a risk of frostbite or hypothermia (which, admittedly, can be a real concern in weather like this but spring will come soon enough).

Fortunately, ACSH has done more-scientific research on alcohol consumption than my own (see here and here).We wouldn't want to give the impression that excessive alcohol consumption is a good idea, but it's worth noting, in a world where we so often hear only about risks, that something so well-liked may also have some health benefits.