Drink alcohol, it’s good for you! In moderation, that is. Drinking alcohol in moderation could have its benefits, depending on your age and sex.
Over the last five years, the health benefits of moderate drinking have been widely seen in the headlines. To those who think everything enjoyable must be bad for you, this news comes as a green light to go ahead and drink up. Of course, there are many stipulations – and these studies don’t indicate that people who are sober should take up drinking or that infrequent drinkers should start drinking more. The important word here is drinking in moderation.
Do we know why moderate drinking lowers heart disease risk? A lot of the benefits of alcohol are on the blood vessels and on blockages in the arteries to the heart and to the brain. This might be related to alcohol’s effect on the good cholesterol, the HDL cholesterol. In fact, alcohol affects HDL levels just about as strongly as any other lifestyle factor. People also think that alcohol may lower heart attack risk by acting as a blood thinner.
What are some of the other health benefits associated with moderate drinking? A wide variety of health effects have been attributed to moderate drinking. A lower risk of diabetes has been seen in women and men.
Studies show, for example, that health benefits only come with moderate drinking and are greatest for older men. And even moderate drinking is not recommended for women who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, or for people who are under 21. The strongest medical evidence exists for the link between moderate drinking and a reduced risk of heart disease.
Dr. Kenneth Mukamal, an intern at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston, was the lead author of a New England Journal of Medicine study examining the roles of drinking patterns and heart disease that found, after 12 years of follow-up, men who consumed alcohol between three and seven days a week had fewer heart attacks than men who drank once a week.
There actually have been experiments done in which alcohol was administered over a couple of months to people without diabetes. In those studies, most of which have been conducted in women, it looks like moderate drinking improves the body’s sensitivity to insulin. It may actually lower insulin levels altogether and may prevent diabetes through that mechanism. More recently there has been some work on moderate drinking and dementia. When looking at a group of older adults in the United States with an average age in the mid-70s – they found a reduced risk. There has been some more work in slightly younger populations from Europe, and those studies have fairly consistently suggested that older adults who were drinking moderately may have a lower risk of dementia. Although they are not exactly sure what the mechanisms may be behind that.
Some of it may very well be because drinking tends to occur in social settings and just the process of getting out and socializing may be an important way to prevent dementia. There is also evidence that moderate drinking may prevent silent strokes or other subtle types of brain injury that can, over time predispose someone to dementia. This is definitely an area that still needs to be investigated further.