If you enjoy a nightly glass of wine or cocktail, you’d probably lap up headlines like these with glee — “A glass of wine a day lowers your risk for early death,” “Moderate drinkers live longer than those who don’t drink at all,” “Occasional drinkers at lower risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes.”
But the health benefits of drinking may not be so cut and dry, and the risks, on the other hand, are hard to ignore.
“The risk for most health harms due to alcohol pretty much start from your first drink and rise in a straight line from there,” says Nick Sheron, M.D., a hepatologist and a visiting professor at Kings College London. “But the unexplained reduction in mortality for people who drink a little may be due to the alcohol or may be due to another factor.”
New research suggests that the risks of even moderate or light drinking may outweigh the supposed benefits and that, in fact, when it comes to some health risks, there may be no safe level of alcohol consumption.
Booze’s benefits not so clear
For quite some time now, moderate drinking — especially a nightly glass of red wine — has been considered a healthy habit that might help you live a little longer than people who don’t drink at all. The increased life span seen among light to moderate drinkers compared to teetotalers is mostly due to lower rates of heart disease and possibly stroke and diabetes.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and it raises your risk for stroke. Diabetes raises your risk for both of these conditions. So, you can imagine how lowering your risk for all three of these would extend your life span over the average American’s.
“A small amount of alcohol lowers your risk for these conditions relative to nondrinking, but once you get into higher levels of drinking, your risk rises again,” says Dana Bryazka, a researcher at the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
But does that daily glass of wine deserve all the credit for prolonging life, or is it something else about people who drink only in moderation?
Some theories about the supposed health benefits of wine suggest that it lowers levels of inflammation — an underlying factor behind numerous chronic diseases and cancers. But the results of studies that seek to prove the theory are mixed — which leads researchers to explore other possible reasons for the link between moderate drinking and better health.
“Low-risk drinkers tend to be socioeconomically better off [than nondrinkers or heavy drinkers], and, as a result, their health is going to be better, too,” Sheron says.
That’s right, wealth tends to lower your risk for chronic disease, obesity and high blood pressure. Wealthier people are less likely to smoke, and they tend to live longer. People with more money have better access to health care, too.