September 7, 2011
One Drink A Day For Good Health?
New research shows that women who enjoy one alcoholic drink per day at midlife may be healthier in old age than women who do not drink at all, who consume more than two drinks per day, or who consume more than three drinks at one sitting.
The study, led by Qi Sun from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Brigham and Women´s Hospital in Boston, Mass, suggests that in women, regular alcohol consumption in moderation during middle age (average 58 years old) relates to good overall health -- which translates to having no major chronic diseases or mental health impairments -- in those who live beyond 70 years. The researchers define this good overall health as “successful ageing.”
The researchers report in the journal PLoS Medicine that this daily drink could be a pint of beer, a glass of wine or a single measure of spirit.
Sun and colleagues analyzed data from the Nurses´ Health Study, a long-running survey of registered nurses in the US. They compared their self-reported drinking in middle age with their health status at age 70. The study included nearly 14,000 women in all, beginning in 1976.
The study found that those who averaged between 3 and 15 alcoholic drinks per week -- spread out evenly throughout the week -- in their late 50s had up to 28 percent higher odds of being free of chronic illness, physical disability, mental health problems and cognitive decline at age 70. And women who drank on 5-7 days of the week had almost double the chance of good overall health in old age compared with those who abstained completely.
Experts are not sure whether it is the alcohol itself that is adds to the benefit or whether it simply goes hand in hand with other lifestyle choices that make women healthier.
Previous research has shown that alcohol can have a positive impact in the body, reducing insulin resistance, inflammation, high cholesterol and other harmful processes, when used in moderation.
However, drinking has also been linked to other conditions, such as breast cancer, but the findings do add to the “strong, consistent evidence” that people who drink in moderation are less likely than nondrinkers or heavy drinkers to experience many health problems, said Sun.
The team said the findings do not necessarily apply to men or to non-white women.
“These data suggest that regular, moderate consumption of alcohol at midlife may be related to a modest increase in overall health status among women who survive to older ages,” the authors wrote.
“The 2010 US Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines note that moderate alcohol consumption of up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men may provide health benefits in some people. Our data support this recommendation and provide novel evidence suggesting that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption at the levels of one to two drinks/day or slightly less at midlife may benefit overall health at older ages in US women,” they added.
While the findings show that middle-aged women who drink moderately have increased odds of being healthier later in life, it doesn´t mean that women who do not currently drink should start. Other healthy habits, such as staying slim and exercising regularly, are far more important to overall health than alcohol consumption, added Sun.
“If you are physically active, if you have a healthy body weight at midlife, you can have much better odds of achieving successful aging,” he said. “You don't have to use moderate alcohol consumption as a way to help achieve healthy aging.”
Plus, Arun Karlamangla, MD, an associate professor of geriatrics at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, told Health.com reporter Anne Harding that large questionnaire-based studies like this one have somewhat inherent limitations.
Unlike clinical trials that compare an active drug with placebos, studies like these cannot prove that alcohol has a direct effect on long-term health, said Karlamangla.
People who drink in moderation “look systematically different than those who...either binge drink or don't drink,” says Karlamangla, who has researched alcohol consumption and disability but was not involved in the new study. And those subtle differences -- which might include their social life, eating and exercise habits, and stress levels at home and on the job -- may influence overall health independent of alcohol consumption, he added.
“Even if you buy the idea that alcohol is good for you, we really can't tease out what aspect is good for you from a study like this,” said Karlamangla.
Sun said they took into account more than a dozen health and demographic factors that could influence both drinking and ageing (such as diet, smoking, educational achievement, and family history of disease), but it is still impossible that the moderate drinkers differed in key ways from their peers.
“Moderate amounts of alcohol may offer some protection against heart disease, especially for women who have gone through the menopause, but it's very important not to go overboard,” Natasha Stewart of the British Heart Foundation told BBC News reporter Michelle Roberts.
“Drinking too much doesn't offer any heart health protection at all and may actually lead to heart muscle damage, stroke and high blood pressure. And if you don't already drink alcohol, there is certainly no need to start now,” she told Roberts. “Clearly there are much better ways to look after your heart than drinking alcohol, like eating a healthy, balanced diet, getting active and by not smoking.”
Women should be aware that even moderate drinking has been linked to increased risk of breast cancer, said Sun. Although, he did add that this and other studies suggest that the health benefits of having one drink or less per day seem to outweigh the increase in the risk of breast cancer.
Karlamangla said the study was “well-done,” and despite the built-in limitations in the research, it reinforces the evidence moderate drinking has on healthy living. “I think there's enough data to say that drinking a small glass of wine a day is good for you,” he remarked.
On the Net:
- Harvard School of Public Health
- Brigham and Women´s Hospital
- PLoS Medicine Study
- Nurses´ Health Study