John Cloud at Time:
One of the most contentious issues in the vast literature about alcohol consumption has been the consistent finding that those who don’t drink tend to die sooner than those who do. The standard Alcoholics Anonymous explanation for this finding is that many of those who show up as abstainers in such research are actually former hard-core drunks who had already incurred health problems associated with drinking.
But a new paper in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research suggests that — for reasons that aren’t entirely clear — abstaining from alcohol does tend to increase one’s risk of dying, even when you exclude former problem drinkers. The most shocking part? Abstainers’ mortality rates are higher than those of heavy drinkers.
Moderate drinking, which is defined as one to three drinks per day, is associated with the lowest mortality rates in alcohol studies. Moderate alcohol use (especially when the beverage of choice is red wine) is thought to improve heart health, circulation and sociability, which can be important because people who are isolated don’t have as many family members and friends who can notice and help treat health problems.
The study done by a six-member team led by psychologist Charles Holahan of the University of Texas, and released in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, followed 1,824 participants over 20 years, and found that mortality rates were highest for those who had never been drinkers, second-highest for heavy drinkers and lowest for moderate drinkers (which is defined as one-to-three drinks per day). The study used slightly more men, 63 percent; over 69 percent of the never-drinkers died during the 20 years, 60 percent of the heavy drinkers died, and only 41 percent of the moderate drinkers died.
Time magazine points out that the study (which you need a subscription to read) does not do a good job explaining their results, though they try to make sense of this data. Even though heavy drinking is associated with higher risk for cirrhosis and several types of cancer, they note that “alcohol lubricates so many social interactions, and social interactions are vital for maintaining mental and physical health.” It was crazy when we discovered that beer gives us stronger bones, but this is next-level stuff. At least now we know that wine in grocery stores really will solve all our problems.
I’ve learned over the years to be skeptical of media reports of medical studies. But we’ve certainly seen a lot of other reports along these lines in recent years. And this looks to be a legitimate study: a large sample size, control for a large number of variables, and long time frame.
Alex Balk at The Awl:
It’s not a 100% endorsement of the advanced drinker’s life: middling drinkers (defined here as those who take 1-3 a day) live longer than the professionals. Still, there’s plenty of good to take away from this, unless you happen to be a non-drinker. Although you’re probably happy to die early given your joyless, alcohol-free existence.
Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair:
If the news comes as a surprise to the scientific community—Time calls the statistics “remarkable”—it comes as an even bigger shock to the heavy-drinking demographic, historically a lackadaisical and stuporous group. For reactions to this news, we interviewed four subjects who all characterize themselves as “heavy drinkers” according to the standards set forth by the Center for Disease Control.
One interviewee, Marlin*, notes that the side effects he’s experienced as a result of heavy drinking—“anxiety shakes, blurred vision, weak bowel movements,” he says—are not those that’d he typically associate with longevity. Richard, like Marlin, thought that heavy drinking has contributed to his poor health. “It seems like the more I drink heavily regularly, the worse and more often the hangovers are getting,” he said. Meghan, also a heavy drinker, hasn’t perceived any casual relationship between her increased imbibition and frequent illness. However, Pascal, who counts Kingsley Amis’s Everyday Drinking among his favorite books, was not surprised by the results of the study. In fact, he thinks the stigma against liberal attitudes toward alcohol consumption is the product of media bias. “In a cultural climate where obesity is one of our primary killers, I think we need to stop stressing so much about alcohol and stress more about food,” he said. “People who drink heavily, at least in my experience, don’t seem to eat as much or as badly. This is probably because they have another vice.” Of course, the study also concluded that moderate drinkers have the lowest mortality rates of all three groups. None of the four interviewees said that they would change their drinking habits because an academic paper suggested doing so would make them healthier. “No one is under the impression that heavy drinking is great for you long term,” said Richard. Well, not “great,” but apparently still better than sobriety. Here’s to your health!
Max Read at Gawker:
But why is that the case? One possibility is that heavy drinkers get more of the social benefits of alcohol use than nondrinkers—i.e., the gnarly parties that are vital to your mental and physical health. (And your sexual health, am I right? Parties! Who’s with me?) Abstainers, as Time‘s John Cloud wrote last year, are at a higher risk of depression than drinkers, which makes sense, because I’ve been the only sober person at a party, and let me tell you, it is depressing.
Now, obviously, alcohol can ruin your relationships, and your career, and destroy your liver, and make you barf on the subway and say rude things to policemen. But it’s still better for your health than confronting the world, and social situations, sober.
The Takeaway: If you’re not drunk right now, you are probably going to die tomorrow.