How Drinking Alcohol Affects Lifespan

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Can moderate consumption lengthen life, or does drinking alcohol mean you won’t live as long?

We all know that drinking too much alcohol can be bad for our health. But what is “too much,” and is it only liver disease we have to watch out for? A major study done for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) provides some answers.

The study suggests that light to moderate drinking may have benefits, although heavy drinking definitely leads to poor outcomes. Data was examined from 333,247 U.S. adults who self-reported how much they drank over the 12-year period starting in 1997 and ending in 2009.

They were grouped into one of six categories:
• Lifetime abstainers
• Lifetime infrequent drinkers
• Former drinkers
• Current light drinkers (fewer than three drinks per week)
• Moderate drinkers (between three and 14 drinks per week for men, and seven or fewer drinks per week for women)
• Heavy drinkers (more than 14 drinks per week for men, and more than seven drinks per week for women)

The study reinforced what other research had found: Drinking too much alcohol at once or over a long period of time can result in heart problems, liver disease and even cancer. Alcohol-related deaths total about 88,000 annually in the U.S., making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death.

On the flip side, moderate drinkers (both men and women) were found to have a decreased risk of mortality. They were 13% to 25% less likely to die from all causes, and 21% to 34% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease. Men and women who were light drinkers also exhibited a decreased risk of dying.

“Our research shows that light to moderate drinking might have some protective effects against cardiovascular disease, while heavy drinking can lead to death,” says lead author Dr. Bo Xi from the Shandong University School of Public Health in China. “A delicate balance exists between the beneficial and detrimental effects of alcohol consumption.”

Heart Problems Reduced
A 2015 study found that drinking up to seven alcoholic drinks (4.4 ounces of wine, about 11 oz. of beer or just under a shot of liquor) a week could protect against heart failure. In fact, the Harvard School of Public Health confirms that over 100 prospective studies link moderate alcohol use with protection against stroke, heart attack, heart disease, sudden cardiovascular death and other cardiovascular conditions. How is this possible?

Wine, and possibly other alcoholic beverages, may increase levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the “good” cholesterol.

Diabetes Risk Lowered
While heavy drinking is linked to an increased risk of diabetes, it’s possible moderate alcohol intake could lower the chances of getting the condition. A 2005 study found moderate drinkers were 30% less likely to be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes compared to both nondrinkers and heavy drinkers. A 2010 study from the Netherlands confirmed the finding.

It’s possible that moderate drinking increases insulin sensitivity, since it encourages levels of adiponectin, a protein that helps regulate glucose levels.

Better Memory
A June 2014 study published in The Journal of Nutrition found a link between moderate alcohol consumption and improved memory and thinking skills. Women who were 70 and above made the most gains. Another study that year found older people who were moderate drinkers displayed a higher episodic memory (the ability to recall events) than their peers, and had a larger hippocampus, a region of the brain involved with memory.

“For most older persons, the overall benefits of light drinking, especially the reduced cardiovascular disease risk, clearly outweigh possible cancer risk,” according to Giovanni de Gaetano, director of the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention at IRCCS Istituto Neurologico Mediterraneo Neuromed in Italy.

But before you pop the cork on that bottle of Cabernet, make sure you’re not at risk for alcohol addiction or an alcohol use disorder, such as binge drinking. You’ll lose any benefits that light to moderate consumption might bestow.

Source: Society of Certified Senior Advisors Blog: Wednesday, October 30, 2019

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