Article By: Harvey Finkel, MD
Although happy to collect the taxes, our federal government has been most uncomfortable admitting that alcohol can provide any benefit, particularly to health. Divisions of the government, like the National Institutes of Health, and organizations it helps support, such as the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization, try very hard to emphasize the negative aspects of drinking, even moderately, and to discourage giving any credit to alcohol. I can almost see our rulers squirming in discomfort in the face of the report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) demonstrating dramatic health benefits of moderate drinking, by no means the first such confirmation that sensible drinkers live longer than abstainers. Despite the clearly favorable effects of moderate consumption in reducing deaths, as found by its own researchers, the CDC’s official press release misleadingly claimed “limiting alcohol consumption” as the healthy lifestyle studied.
An article in the american journal of public health (2O11;1O1:1922-1929), Ford, et al., “Low-Risk Lifestyle Behaviors and All-Cause Mortality: Findings From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III Mortality Study”, reported on a group of 17,OOO subjects of both sexes, age 17 and older. In particular, deaths of all causes, of cardiovascular disease (chiefly heart attack or stroke), of cancer, and of other causes were found to be inversely related to four low-risk lifestyle behaviors: never smoking, healthy diet, adequate physical activity, and moderate alcohol consumption. This last was defined as no more than 3O drinks per month for women, 6O or fewer for men. Types of beverage were not distinguished. For those subjects exhibiting all four low-risk behaviors, deaths from all causes were 63 percent lower than for indolent, teetotaling smokers eating an unhealthy diet. Smoking was the most deadly unhealthy behavior of the four.
Taken singly, never smoking reduced total mortality by 41 percent, most profoundly decreasing cancer deaths. Healthy diet gave a 14 percent reduction in deaths, physical activity 24 percent, and moderate drinking 23 percent. The effects of each of the healthful behaviors are additive, in a dose-related fashion. Drinkers who never smoked, for example, had a reduction of death rate of 5O percent. The largest impact of moderate drinking was on cardiovascular deaths.
All this is nothing new, except for the source. We have seen hundreds of scientific articles attesting to the healthfulness of moderate drinking during the last 3O years, encapsulated in the now-famous J-shaped curve. This depicts moderate drinkers outliving both abstainers and abusers. Moderate drinking’s benefits have been advised by sages and by folk wisdom since biblical times. The J-shaped relation of alcohol to health and longevity was first written about scientifically, as far as I know, by Raymond Pearl in 1926, in reference to tuberculosis.
The low-risk lifestyle factors’ high-risk opposites – smoking, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, abstention from alcohol and excessive drinking, especially in binges, to which I’d add obesity – predispose to our most frequent causes of death: heart attack and stroke, cancer and complications of diabetes. As the authors conclude, “low-risk lifestyle factors exert a powerful and beneficial effect on mortality.” My colleague, Professor R. Curtis Ellison of Boston University School of Medicine, an internationally respected authority on the effects of alcohol, is quoted in wine spectator about this study: “Moderate alcohol use appears to have a larger effect than either diet or physical activity. I would assume that if they were able to just study regular wine drinkers who do not binge drink, the results would be even better.”