Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - June 2015
Moderate alcohol consumption really is better for your health than total abstention
IF YOU’RE reading this, the odds are that you’re enjoying a glass of beer. You probably think that overall it’s not going to actually benefit your health, but, as long as you don’t overdo it, it shouldn’t do too much harm. Although heard less now, it used to be commonplace to ask “what’s your poison?” when offering someone a drink.
But you would be mistaken in that view. Alcohol may be a poison but, as with many substances, the poison is in the dose. In fact, there is an overwhelming weight of scientific research evidence indicating that moderate drinkers have a lower mortality rate and higher life expectancy than total abstainers, in particular having a lower rate of cardiovascular disease. It is sometimes claimed that the figures are skewed by people who have had to give up drinking because of poor health, but the effect still applies even if they are excluded from the calculations.
For example, in 2006, the "Archives of Internal Medicine", an American Medical Association journal, published an analysis based on 34 well-designed prospective studies and incorporating a million individual subjects, which found that “1 to 2 drinks per day for women and 2 to 4 drinks per day for men are inversely associated with total mortality.” 1
More recently, a study was published earlier this year in the British Medical Journal entitled “All cause mortality and the case for age specific alcohol consumption guidelines.” This was specifically looking at the over-50 age group, but the data showed that, for every band of alcohol consumption above zero, the mortality risk was significantly lower than that for non-drinkers, in some cases by up to 25%. The same was true, although to a slightly lesser degree, when former drinkers were excluded to make the comparison solely with those who had never drunk. It was still the case for those in the highest consumption group – those drinking over 20 units per week – although obviously there would eventually come a point where the risk became higher. 2
I could bore you and go on, but you get the point. What is more, these benefits persist to some extent even if people drink significantly more than the official guidelines. These figures are often described as “limits”, but in effect they represent the bottom point of the risk curve and you certainly don’t drop off a cliff of risk by nudging over them. In 1994, Sir Richard Doll, the distinguished epidemiologist who established the link between smoking and lung cancer, showed that the relationship between alcohol consumption and mortality has a J-curve, with risk higher for teetotallers, lower for moderate drinkers and then a rise for heavier drinkers.
There are all kinds of lifestyle factors that have an impact on our health, and in practice it is very difficult to make a clear link between cause and effect. If you really can’t stand the stuff, the additional risk isn’t all that great, and there’s little point in forcing it down for the sake of it. But, even if you only have a couple of halves a week, statistically it will make a difference. If you do enjoy drinking in moderation, then there is no need to feel guilty about it, and you should not imagine that cutting alcohol out entirely will be beneficial. All those sports and showbiz stars who make a point of boasting that they never touch a drop are actually admitting they’re not following the best diet to maximise their longevity.
The Holy Grail for the anti-drink lobby is to find conclusive evidence that any amount of alcohol consumption is detrimental to health. But, unfortunately for them, the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence points in the opposite direction, and those who support pubs and responsible drinking should not be afraid to point this out.