Article By: Harvey Finkel, MD
IT IS NO LEAP of my imagination to assume that anyone reading this is interested in the latest medical science on wine’s influences upon health. Let us, therefore, review some of the high points presented by some of the world’s leaders in alcohol research at Wine Health 2O13, the Seventh International Wine and Health Conference, held in July, 2O13, in Sydney, Australia. I am indebted to the estimable Creina Stockley for access to much of this information.
We’ll follow Stockley’s guidance by dividing the complexities into several chewable bites. To begin with general conclusions, we’ll see that moderate consumption, of wine especially, enhances health and long life compared to both abstention and excess. This is the now-familiar J-shaped curve.
DECREASED RISK OF DEATH A 2O-year study of older Australian men and women showed that inclusion of any alcohol in the diet was associated with an increase of life span of 12 months. Low and moderate consumers had about a 25 percent lower risk of death from all causes compared to abstainers and to heavy drinkers. Low consumption was defined as 1-14 drinks per week for men, 1-7 for women. Moderate was defined as 15-24 drinks per week for men, 8-14 for women. Heavy drinkers risked ten percent higher mortality than abstainers. The relationships held in the presence of such major risk factors as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity, and were not influenced by the level of HDL (the “good”) cholesterol.
CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE The relationship of risk of and death from cardiovascular disease specifically to drinking was similar, as demonstrated by both a large seven-year study of younger American women and a Spanish five-year study of men and women 55 to 8O years of age. Biologic markers of risk and of cardiac protection followed the disease and death statistics. These included measures of blood clotting, of inflammation, and of blood fats and sugar. The results were independent of diet and lifestyle. Blood pressure was found to increase only among those consuming more than 14 drinks per week. There was a suggestion that some genetically determined biochemical risk factors may be impacted, beneficially or adversely, by drinking.
ALCOHOL AND WINE’S POLYPHENOLS EACH HAS DISTINCTIVE HEALTH EFFECTS Attempts to dissect the effects of alcohol (ethanol) from those of other components of wine, chiefly the polyphenols, have met with difficult complexities. Studies reported at the Conference, however, shed some light. Nitric oxide in the lining of blood vessels is essential for their health. Impairment of the synthesis of nitric oxide promotes atherosclerosis, the basic and all-too-prevalent disorder leading to heart attacks, most strokes, and other afflictions. Atherosclerosis is by far the dominant cause of disability and death in the developed world. Resveratrol and other polyphenols of wine have been shown to increase nitric oxide synthesis. In a study comparing the effects of red wine (containing alcohol and polyphenols) with dealcoholized red wine (only the polyphenols) and gin (only the alcohol), the dealcoholized wine increased nitric oxide synthesis. It also lowered blood pressure. Both phenol-containing drinks reduced plasma insulin and insulin resistance, changes beneficial in diabetes. All three drinks beneficially altered blood fats and the inflammatory process – both thought to be inciters or promoters of atherosclerosis.
Other presentations discussed the limiting of ischemic cardiac damage by the melatonin in wine, and the possible mechanisms by which the polyphenols in wine may be made available to and effective within the body’s cells These are still preliminary stages of potentially important issues.
It seems clear that wine’s health advantages, when used in moderation, is mediated through the combined efforts of alcohol and other compounds.
MODERATE WINE CONSUMPTION DECREASES THE RISK OF COGNITIVE DECLINE AND DEMENTIA The Australian study of the elderly mentioned earlier also revealed a reduced risk of dementia among those drinking lightly or moderately, as compared with non-drinkers. In another experiment, red wine improved cognitive function of an elderly group, and red wine with added resveratrol additionally improved mental function. Here again, we may be seeing combined effects of alcohol and polyphenols. Finally, in regard to brain function, a study showed that Champagne-regaled rats improved their spatial working memory, a function often lost in humans with dementia. The rats’ mood no doubt also improved.
MODERATE WINE DRINKING MAY DECREASE CANCER RISK
In the uncritical views of those determined to demonize drinking, no matter the quantity and the temperance, alcohol has been promiscuously cited as a carcinogen (cancer-causing or cancer-promoting substance). Certainly, with chronic abusive drinking, the risks are increased of aerodigestive cancers (of mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus), especially with the help of heavy smoking, and of liver cancer. There is mixed data concerning breast and colorectal cancers in relation to less abusive drinking. (Realize, however, that even were the case made for these last two, the cardiovascular benefits of sensible drinking would massively outweigh the cancer liabilities.) Other guilts by association are not backed by real data. Some cancer risks associated with alcohol appear to be eliminated by administration of the vitamin folic acid.
A French study of 35,292 men for 25 years reported a lower risk of death from cancers of the lung, lip, mouth, throat, and larynx among moderate drinkers whose consumption was more than half in the form of wine. No increase was found in risk of death from cancers of the colon, stomach, pancreas, liver, or prostate. Increased risk, however, was noted among drinkers of beverages other than wine, risk rising with quantity drunk.
TAKE-HOME LESSON We are again assured that regular moderate drinking, especially of wine, especially with meals, promotes good health and long life, in comparison to abstention as well as to heavy drinking. Binge drinking is worst of all. Moderate drinking’s health benefits add to those of other healthy lifestyle factors: healthy diet, avoidance of obesity, physical activity, non-smoking, and of correction of abnormalities of blood pressure, clotting, fats, and sugar.
The full proceedings of the Wine Health 2O13 Conference will be published by the journal NUTRITION AND AGEING. The next conference is scheduled for 2O16 in England.