Dispatch: L chayim! Even heavy drinking may prolong life

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A new 20-year study finds that those who abstain from alcohol are outlived by both moderate (1-3 drinks per day) and heavy drinkers. A number of previous studies have shown abstainers have a higher mortality rate than moderate drinkers, but it had been hypothesized that many of these non-drinkers were actually former alcoholics suffering from chronic alcohol-related diseases. However, this recent study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, excludes former drinkers from its cohort of 1,824 participants, suggesting that moderate alcohol intake, especially red wine, may increase longevity. Of the study participants, who were aged 55 to 65 when the survey began, just over 69 percent of the never-drinkers died over 20 years, compared to 60 percent of the heavy drinkers and 41 percent of the moderate drinkers.

“The methodology for this study is a great improvement over past studies,” says ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. “The fact that even after former drinkers were eliminated from consideration, moderate drinkers still lived longer than non-drinkers, bolsters the hypothesis that moderate drinking can contribute to good health.”

ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross, however, disagrees with the article’s explanation that the health benefits stem from alcohol being a “social lubricant” and that never-drinkers are more prone to depression because they lack social outlets.

ACSH's Jeff Stier still wouldn’t suggest that non-drinkers start drinking based on these findings. “But will there ever be a study or body of evidence that will persuade experts to actually recommend people start drinking to improve their health?” asks Stier. “I would imagine it would be a very high bar.

“The mixed messages about the risks and benefits of alcohol consumption is enough to drive one to drink,” he adds. “People have a hard time understanding, when it comes to drinking, or taking medicine, there are both risks and benefits, and that doesn’t mean the evidence actually conflicts.”

UPDATE 9/1/2010: To clarify: This particular study just looked at average daily alcohol consumption and made no distinction between beer, wine or spirits. ACSH’s booklet Moderate Alcohol Consumption and Health concludes that alcohol (in moderation) in any form offers protection from heart disease