New study shows that middle-aged women can improve health in the decades to come by drinking regularly – but moderately.

A new study finds that middle-aged women who regularly drink moderate amounts of alcohol are healthier when they’re older, compared to those who drink heavily or drink very little. It’s yet another study that supports the idea that a drink a day will keep the doctors away, but we have to ask once again if the health benefits come from the [drink itself or other factors.]

Regularly drinking high quantities of alcohol is detrimental to health. But a number of studies in recent years has shown that, when compared to heavy or no alcohol consumption, drinking in moderation can reduce the risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and decline in cognitive function. Moderate drinkers also stand a lesser chance of dying in general, compared to heavy drinkers and those that simply don’t touch the stuff.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public health wanted to extend these studies by taking a look at how moderate drinking affects overall health among aging populations. Because chronic conditions develop over time, the researchers argue, it is important to identify factors earlier in life that contribute to health later on.

The Nurses’ Health Studies are a series of long term studies in which the health of white registered nurses in the US is monitored with periodic completions of detailed health-related questionnaires. The first study began in 1976 to investigate the effects of long term oral contraceptive use. The study sought to draw links between health and diet, and so questionnaires included questions about food frequency, including wine consumption. Important factors such as whether or not they smoked, and whether or not they had a family history of heart disease or diabetes was also gotten from the questionnaires. The Harvard researchers were able to mine the Nurses’ Health Studies data for the alcohol consumption assessment of about 14,000 female registered nurses who made it to age 70.

Why moderate amounts of alcohol are beneficial to health remains a mystery.

In the US, one “drink” contains about 15 g of alcohol – a can of beer or a small glass of wine. For women, moderate consumption is one drink per day; for men it’s two. And heavy drinkers are those who average more. The researchers formed two groups: those who drank moderately in their late 50s and those who rarely or never drank. They then assessed the groups’ chances for “successful aging” to age 70. They define this enviable-sounding term as having avoided major diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, as well as avoiding major physical or cognitive decline.

Compared with nondrinking teetotalers, women who averaged one-third to one drink per day in their late 50s had about a 20 percent higher chance of successful aging.

Their criteria sounds like something we would all hope to attain. What they called “successful aging” is reaching age 70 and “being free of 11 major chronic diseases and having no major cognitive impairment, physical impairment, or mental health limitations.” Just less than 11 percent of the study group attained successful aging. What’s more, regardless of total alcohol consumption, women who drank regularly fared better than women who drank occasionally. Those who drank 5 to 7 days a week had a 50 percent better chance of successful aging to age 70 than those who drank one or two days a week. This makes sense. It’s probably healthier to average 7 drinks per week if you’re drinking Monday thru Sunday, rather than reaching the average on Saturday and Sunday alone. As you are probably already aware, binge drinking – 4 or more drinks on occasion for women, 5 or more for men – is not so healthy, increasing the risk of certain types of cancer, contributing to depression, and often behind fatal traffic accidents.

A fair question to ask is whether or not moderate amounts of alcohol are really good for you, or is the better health due to, say, a more relaxed lifestyle, a more affluent lifestyle, better education, or drinking Bordeaux instead of Boone’s Farm. The authors of the study used statistical tools to control for a great number of would-be confounding variables. Age, smoking status, weight, amount of physical activity, diet, marital status, education – even husband’s education – and family history of several diseases are some of the variables they took into account (One would have to assume that the relative benefits of Bordeaux and Boone’s Farm were beyond the scope of the study).

Exactly what it is in a regular and small glass of wine that is beneficial to our health, no one can say. The much touted benefits of reservatrol remain controversial. But experimental data continues to establish that moderate alcohol intake is beneficial to multiple injurious processes such as insulin resistance and inflammation.

Despite the good news for those who like a drop of vino seven times a week on average, the authors don’t intend to send the message: If you want to be healthy, start drinking. “If you are physically active, if you have a healthy body weight at midlife, you can have much better odds of achieving successful aging,” Qi Sun, lead author of the study told Health Magazine. “You don’t have to use moderate alcohol consumption as a way to help achieve healthy aging.”

[image credit: For Ladies By Ladies and ABC of Wine]
image 1: Cheers
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Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.