Drinking Ourselves to Health
There are two sides to every alleged health crisis, and alcohol consumption is no different. For the past week, traditional media trumpeted a “hidden” epidemic of British binge drinking that’s destroying the country’s physical quality of life.
The fragility of the empirical case against those binging-behind-closed-doors Britons merits a lengthy rebuttal. Here, suffice it to say the case’s principal weakness is measuring binge drinking according to a Methodist-inspired scale that is, frankly, bogus. The measurement instrument bears little, if any, relationship to an average person’s ability to consume alcohol responsibly.
This call to crack down on binge drinking constitutes the latest ill-informed attempt to nudge consumers in the ‘right’ (i.e. state-approved) direction. Yet, the good news is that not all drinking-related research makes for depressing reading; quite the contrary, in fact.
It’s nine decades since Raymond Pearl dared to suggest that, in opposition to conventional medical wisdom, moderate alcohol consumption had desirable health benefits. Today, scientific evidence demonstrating alcohol’s positive contribution to public health continues to accumulate.
Over 100 studies have shown that moderate drinkers seem to be healthier and seem to have lower mortality rates than non-drinkers and heavy drinkers. These studies generally show a relationship between light to moderate drinking and a reduced risk of vascular disease, particularly of coronary heart disease and stroke, heart attacks, and overall mortality. In addition, several other diseases, including cancer and diabetes, are also known to occur less frequently in moderate drinkers than in non-drinkers.
In the journal, Internal and Emergency Medicine, Augusto Di Castelnuovo and his colleagues recently presented the latest evidence to support the protective effect of moderate alcohol intake against cardiovascular disease and mortality. In their study published in the journal, Genes & Nutrition, Raj Lakshman and his colleagues conclude that both moderate ethanol and quercetin, the two major components of red wine, exhibit protective properties.
A 2010 British Medical Journal study by French scientists found that what matters to your heart health isn’t how much alcohol you drink, but how and when you drink it. The study’s lead author, Jean Ferrières, concluded, “We think you can protect your heart by drinking daily with a complete meal.”
The scientists followed more than 10,000 Irish and French men for 10 years. After controlling for smoking, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and other risks, they found that compared with regular drinkers, teetotalers were almost twice as likely to have had heart problems.
A study published last year showed that moderate drinking might help men live longer after suffering a heart attack. The American research published in the European Heart Journal found that men who drank about two alcoholic drinks per day over a long period of time had a 14 percent lower risk of death from any cause, and a 42 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, than nondrinkers.
A fascinating paper published in 2010 in the journal, Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, suggests that abstaining from alcohol does actually tend to increase one’s risk of dying – even when you exclude former drinkers. In fact, abstainers’ mortality rates are also higher than those of heavy drinkers.
After controlling for socioeconomic status, level of physical activity, number of close friends, and quality of social support, the American researchers found that, over a 20-year period, mortality rates were highest for those who had never been drinkers, second-highest for heavy drinkers, and lowest for moderate drinkers.
More recent Japanese research concluded that alcohol drinking may not be a major risk for fatty liver-related problems. Interestingly, both daily moderate and heavy drinking appeared to protect male livers in this regard.
Canadian researchers recently examined the relationship between consumption of alcoholic beverages and lung cancer risk. Their conclusion is that beer consumption increased lung cancer risk, particularly so among men who had relatively low fruit and vegetable consumption. However, moderate wine drinkers had decreased lung cancer risk.
A recent American osteoporosis study offers encouraging findings for older drinkers. Among older adults, moderate alcohol consumption has a positive relationship with bone mineral density at the hip. Young and old alike may be heartened by a report in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging that moderate alcohol consumption may be a protective factor against mild cognitive impairment and dementia.
Most recently, science has challenged the conventional wisdom that alcohol impairs analytical thinking and rational thoughts. Researchers have discovered that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may significantly enhance problem solving skills.
American scientists have found that men who drank two pints of beer or two glasses of wine before solving brain teasers not only got more questions right, they also were quicker in delivering correct answers, compared to men who answered the questions sober.
According to Jennifer Wiley, a cognitive psychologist, alcohol may enhance creativity problem solving by reducing the mind’s working memory capacity, which is the ability to concentrate on something in particular. Her key finding was that being too focused can blind a person to novel possibilities and a broader, more flexible state of attention may be helpful for creative solutions to emerge.
Last month saw the latest research published lauding the so-called “Mediterranean Diet,” particularly the diet’s relationship to lower levels of heart disease. Revealingly, such a diet requires a person to drink wine daily.
The alleged scientific consensus about alcohol’s supposedly minimal health benefits is manufactured not by any genuine agreement about the evidence, but by simply ruling out certain pieces of research that are inconvenient for the public health establishment’s group-think. For example, the Framingham project, a study financed by the US Government, found 40 years ago that there were significant positive effects of moderate drinking on heart disease.
Yet, in 1972, the US Government’s National Institutes of Health refused Harvard anthropologist Carl Seltzer, the study’s key researcher, permission to publish these results because they would be “socially undesirable in view of the major health problem of alcoholism that already exists in the country.” Two years ago, Professor David Nutt of Imperial College London claimed the idea that drinking small amounts of alcohol will do you no harm is a myth.
His contention should serve as an alarming reminder to all liberal-minded individuals. Although the weight of the scientific research rests heavily on the drinking-is-good-for-you side of the evidentiary scale, today it’s Nutt’s abstemious side that grips ever-tighter the reins of alcohol policymaking.
Patrick Basham directs the Democracy Institute and is a Cato Institute adjunct scholar. He coauthored, with Dr John Luik, What’s the BMA Been Drinking? The Case Against an Alcohol Ad Ban.