drinking-fountain-of-youth
Is this the fountain of youth?

A recently published study in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research shows that heavy drinkers actually live longer than those who abstain from alcohol. Scientists at the University of Texas Austin and Stanford University studied more than 1800 individuals over a twenty year period and correlated their alcohol consumption with all forms of death. Moderate drinkers, those that consume one to three drinks per day, had the lowest mortality rates. Heavy drinkers were 70% more likely to perish, and abstainers (those who currently did not drink) were over 100% more likely to die than moderates. Even controlling for past drinking habits (some abstainers were recovering alcoholics), sociodemographic info, and health, heavy drinkers were still only 45% more likely to die than moderates while nondrinkers rated in at +51%. While the authors don’t propose a single cause for why heavy drinking may be less detrimental to your health than abstaining, it seems clear that lifting a cup, especially in moderation, may be a fun means of pursuing longevity.

When studying areas around the world that live the longest (the Blue Zones) we seem to come across a winning formula for longevity: eat well (mostly plants), exercise regularly, and avoid stress. Further study of centenarians suggest that while genes play an important role in later years, lifestyle choices and social bonds may be bigger effects up to your 70s. How does the new data about drinking fit into this understanding? Well there are physiological effects such as reduced heart disease that are associated with moderate drinking, especially for red wines (perhaps due to resveratrol). But the easiest answer may be that alcohol is a social lubricant.

Yep, increased risks for liver disease and various cancers associated with heavy drinking are likely to offset the benefits received from consuming alcohol. So the gains that heavy drinkers have over tee-totalers may be social. Whether that means that abstainers are less likely to form new social bonds, or simply don’t have an easy way to release stress, I can’t say.

Before you race out to the pub to grab another pint with your mates, however, we should consider some of the limitations of this study. First, the study focused on individuals 55 to 65 years in age who had some form of outpatient care in the three years leading up to the study. As the research followed 20 years of their life, this puts many of the individuals in the 75 to 85 range at closing. That makes sense, clearly, as this was a study focusing on mortality, but it may be that alcohol consumption raises death rates among younger individuals in ways it wouldn’t for older ones (which you might expect in cases of accidental death, murder, and suicide).

While researchers strove to get an accurate sampling across many different demographics groups, the study also focused mostly on men, who made up 63% of the group. Social norms for drinking, as well as physiological benefits from alcohol consumption, are likely different for men than for women.

Scientists also did their best to control factors in their study. They adjusted for gender, age, health, former drinking habits, and behavior when reaching their conclusions about heavy drinkers outliving abstainers. Still, there may be other factors not adjusted for as alcohol consumption is such a complex social behavior. Overall mortality rates, not adjusted, were 69% for abstainers, 60% for heavy drinkers, and 41% for moderates.

The surest path to longevity may be in finding ways to get the benefits of behaviors while avoiding their risks. Even moderate alcohol consumption can raise chances for certain diseases and forms of accidental death. As scientists strive to find ways to give you the physiological benefits of drinking without the impairments, we should keep the social benefits in mind as well. Relieving stress and strengthening social bonds are a key ingredient to living a long and healthy life, and most of the world uses alcohol to help achieve these goals. If we find ways to pursue them without lifting a glass it may be a better solution. Still, even if we never divorce alcohol from its benefits, I’m sure we’ll find new ways to increase its effectiveness using technology. There are certainly a few robots who are willing to help.

[image credit: John White via WikiCommons]
[source: Holahan et al, 2010]