If you’ve been following the news over the last few years, you’ve probably seen stories about the potential health benefits of drinking alcohol. And while many of these studies seemed compelling enough to make even non-drinkers reconsider, doubting voices have started to look harder at what the evidence really says about low-level drinking. (Here’s how to tell if your social drinking is problematic.)
In a new analysis published this week, researchers looked not only to summarize the data from the past, but to reanalyze it after addressing some of the problems they felt were clouding the results of previous studies. What they found may have you reconsidering your next glass of beer or wine.
Why doubt the connection between alcohol and health?
As the studies linking alcohol began to mount, some researchers and physicians in the field became suspicious about whether alcohol was truly behind many of the benefits it was being linked to. Some of the conditions alcohol supposedly helped included deafness, hip fractures, the common cold, cancers, birth complications, and dementia, many of which didn’t have an obvious reason for being connected. In fact, low-level alcohol consumption even seemed to lower the risk of birth defects and liver cirrhosis even though both are caused by alcohol consumption. The results seemed to indicate that something else might be going on.
When the team then looked at other reviews of the research that had been done, they also found that how a research group defined who was a drinker and who was an abstainer (someone who didn’t drink alcohol) was muddier than it should be. Many people were being labeled as “abstainers” even if they had a history of moderate or heavy drinking but had quit for health reasons. A previous alcoholic, for example, might be labeled as an abstainer if they hadn’t had a drink in the past year even if they were suffering the serious health consequences of heavy drinking in the past. The team suspected that who was included in this “abstaining” group might have led to some of the apparent alcohol-related health claims that had been made.
What did these researchers do differently?
This team wanted to try and sort out exactly how the alcohol you drank might affect your health and they did this by being much more careful with how they grouped people. They gathered data from 87 studies that had looked at alcohol and health in different groups of people. They found that only 30 of the studies had actually defined “abstainers” as people who had been non-drinkers their entire life. The rest had murky definitions that sometimes included people who drank occasionally and people who had a history of drinking. The team pooled all of the data from all of these studies together and sorted it themselves based on their new definitions of how much people drank. Importantly, former drinkers were in their own group separate from never drinkers. People who occasionally drank (about one drink per week) also had their own group separate from “low volume” drinkers (one to two drinks per day).
What did the team find?
After going through three different types of analysis, the team found no evidence that moderate drinking was better for your health than no drinking at all. They found that the “former drinker” group had much higher risk of disease and death even if they weren’t drinking anymore, but that lifetime abstainers, occasional drinkers, and low volume drinkers were all about the same in terms of how likely they were to have disease and how long they lived. The team did note that some analyses hinted that occasional drinkers might be the healthiest of the lot, but they say that this is probably entirely due to other lifestyle factors since having alcohol only once a week isn’t enough to have any real lasting effects. They think occasional drinkers might also stand out because some lifetime abstainers are prevented from drinking by health conditions. That can make the occasional drinkers seem healthier than abstainers, but the reason behind that difference isn’t the alcohol.
What does this mean for me?
The key takeaway point for this study is that you shouldn’t start drinking if you never did or bump up the amount you already drink for “health reasons.” This research shows that low-level drinking really has no health benefits compared to occasional drinking or no drinking at all. If you do drink, anything up to one or two drinks seems to be fine, but anything beyond that can have potential health consequences. Finally, the study showed that how much you drink is often a sign of your lifestyle choices, which can matter more than the alcohol in your diet. Those who exercise more, smoke less, and eat better are all less likely to have disease and to die, regardless of drinking habits.