So What Does it Mean that Studies Reveal that Moderate Drinkers Are Healthier than Teetotalers ?
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A 2010 study found that abstainers' all-cause mortality rate is twice as high as that of moderate drinkers. Examining death rates among middle-aged people, this study also found a 70 percent higher mortality rate for heavy drinkers than for moderate drinkers. So does abstaining mean you'll die that much sooner than both your social-drinker, daiquiri-a-day ex and alcoholic Uncle Joe, who blacks out in alleyways?
Is life unfair?
The trouble with scientifically studying alcohol consumption is that drinking habits are intertwined with countless variables that have less to do with physiology than with lifestyle, demographics and class -- and even intelligence.
What else is happening in the lives of those who drink nothing, a little or a lot?
"People who are at lower risk for the diseases related to moderate alchol consumption are also following these general guidelines as it relates to healthy behaviors: moderation, balance and variety," Scheuner says. "They likely also exercise in moderation, sleep the 'right' amount, eat a balanced and varied healthy diet that includes moderate alcohol, and keep their stress levels in a healthy range."
A Danish study investigating drinking patterns -- as opposed to quantities -- found that women who drink alcohol on at least one day per week have a lower risk of heart disease than women who drink less frequently. But the study's authors found that "unhealthy traits (smoking and a low intake of fruit and vegetables) were common at both extremes of drinking frequency" -- that is, common among both abstainers and heavy drinkers.
Sometimes the health benefits clearly come down to chemistry. Alcohol consumption increases heart-healthy high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, aka "good cholesterol." Alcohol consumption also protects against heart disease by lowering levels of fibrinogen, a plasma involved in blood clotting. Studies show that resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, protects the heart and slows the aging process. Still more studies associate a hops-derived phytoestrogen with lower incidence of hot flashes, leading some to consider beer a natural menopause treatment.
Throughout history, alcoholic beverages have been used as medicine. Hippocrates recommended wine as a diuretic, sedative and fever reducer. Medieval Europeans quaffed huge quantities of gin and other spirits, believing this might stave off the Black Plague. Liquor-based "patent medicines" were an American frontier mainstay; one popular brand, Hostetter's Bitters, contained 43 percent alcohol. The 18th-century French monks who distilled 100 herbs, flowers and secret ingredients into Chartreuse called it an elixir végétal. In 1903, Britain's royal physician commissioned a London distillery to create a beverage that could "warm and revivify" King Edward VII, who was susceptible to colds. The result was a lustrously silky-spicy liqueur, the King's Ginger, still used by the royal family.
Our snake-oil-swigging ancestors weren't altogether idiots.
Alcoholism kills in a thousand ways. But somewhere in that borderland between avoidance and indulgence is a sweet spot. And at this point in history, science doesn't really know why.