c) It depends on who you ask
c) It depends on who you ask
What you should know:
There have been many, many studies on the health effects of alcohol, involving hundreds of thousands of people. There is even a widely known curve based on some of those studies that purports to show that the “healthiest” amount of alcohol consumption is something around 2 drinks a day for men, and half that for women. It looks like this:
It’s an impressive looking curve, very scientific in appearance. And the idea that consumption of alcohol has cardiovascular benefits has support from some respected health research organizations.1,2
On the other hand, some recent major studies3, and the World Health Organization, have concluded that NO amount of alcohol consumption is healthy.4
Why isn’t there scientific consensus on this issue? Because the studies that have been done on the relationship of alcohol consumption to health were not designed in such a way that they could actually determine whether there’s a cause-effect relationship. Instead, they are based on observation of people over longish periods of time, in many cases asking them to report their own behaviors. And depending on who was observed and how, the observers concluded either that people who drank moderately tended to live longer than people who didn’t, or that their lives and health were actually shortened and diminished.
As discussed in other eSavvyHealth articles, such as this Food for Thought piece, observational studies can determine whether two phenomena are associated with each other (that is, are often seen in the same person), but they cannot determine whether one causes the other, because of the possibility of a third factor that is responsible for both phenomena. For example, perhaps people who drink moderately are likely to have more money than people who don’t drink at all, and also likely to have less stress in their lives than people who drink more heavily. It could be that the individual’s life circumstances determine both their drinking habits and their health conditions. If that’s the case, changing drinking habits by itself won’t improve anything.
There are many forces at play in efforts to investigate and report on the relationship between alcohol and health. Alcohol production and consumption is a 1.5-trillion-dollar worldwide industry. The consequences of overindulgence can be devastating to individuals, families, and communities, as well as a burden to state and local governments and taxpayers. Alcohol use and misuse account for 3.3 million deaths every year, or 6 percent of all deaths worldwide.5 Some forms of alcohol consumption are deeply embedded in certain cultures, or are actually expected behavior in some contexts (such as in the undergraduate classes of universities).
These factors raise the stakes of getting the science right, and at the same time they make it harder to do that, because they are likely to influence the research that is done and the dissemination and interpretations of its findings.
Our own conclusion, which may be a little disappointing, is this: at this time, there is no science-based reason to be certain that moderate consumption of alcohol is likely to lead to greater longevity and health for most people, nor is there a science-based reason to be certain that it is likely to lead to a shorter and less healthy life for most people. It’s also worth noting that, in general, these studies are attempting to determine whether or not alcohol is healthy for an average person. But as eSavvyHealth’s Executive Editor has pointed out, no one is “average”—we are all unique.
All of that said, if you do choose to drink moderately, there are aspects of your health you’ll want to keep an eye on. Specifically:
Your liver: As we pointed out in an eSavvyHealth Insight, “the liver’s processing of alcohol generates fat within liver cells, which interferes with their normal operation and can ultimately lead to cellular damage and scarring referred to as cirrhosis.” There are blood tests that your health services provider can recommend to help you determine whether such damage is taking place.
Your brain: There’s some evidence that moderate alcohol consumption might negatively impact the brain, possibly related to increased accumulation of iron.6 If you have concerns about memory, brain function, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s, you might wish to discuss this with your health services provider. (There’s an MRI test for brain iron levels.)
Cancer: One of the studies that was the basis of the WHO “zero alcohol” recommendation found an association between breast, colon, and oral cancers and moderate alcohol consumption. As discussed above, association is not causation; still, you might wish to have your health provider help you determine whether you might have a predisposition to those diseases.
While we can’t give you a clear yes or no answer to this particular question, what we can give you is a better understanding of your body, and of what you can do to support good health and quite possibly increase your active longevity, whether you choose to drink or not.
- Moderation key to alcohol’s potential health benefits, Harvard School of Public Health
- Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health: The Dose Makes the Poison…or the Remedy, Mayo Clinic
- Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016, The Lancet
- No level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health, World Health Organization
- Social and Cultural Contexts of Alcohol Use: Influences in a Social–Ecological Framework
- Associations Between Moderate Alcohol Consumption, Brain Iron, And Cognition in UK Biobank Participants: Observational and Mendelian Randomization Analyses