Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The extreme debate about alcohol in moderation

Posted By on Tue, Jun 16, 2009 at 10:10 AM

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For years it's been accepted wisdom that drinking in moderation, especially red wine, helps lower the chances of heart disease. But now that presumption has been flipped on its head, as doctors are wondering whether moderate drinking is not a cause of lower heart disease but merely a byproduct.

Studies show that moderate drinking is most often done by people who live moderately in other aspects of their life. It may simply be that leading a moderate life of not eating too much, exercising some and not smoking is perfectly healthy on its own.

As the New York Times reports, the problem scientists face is that it's "very hard to disentangle" one aspect of a lifestyle from another in studies. As a result, there's no hard evidence that alcohol itself helps you live longer. "There has not been a single study done on moderate

alcohol consumption and mortality outcomes that is a 'gold standard'

kind of study -- the kind of randomized controlled clinical trial that

we would be required to have in order to approve a new pharmaceutical

agent in this country."

Circumstantial evidence certainly does point that way, though. As early as 1924, a John Hopkins scientist noticed that people who drank moderately lived longer when compared to people who drank heavily or not at all. Some 80 years later, the connection between alcohol and health remains as contentious an issue as ever.

Studies comparing moderate drinkers with abstainers have come under

fire in recent years. Critics ask: Who are these abstainers? Why do

they avoid alcohol? Is there something that makes them more susceptible

to heart disease?

Some researchers suspect the abstainer group may include "sick quitters,"

people who stopped drinking because they already had heart disease.

People also tend to cut down on drinking as they age, which would make

the average abstainer older -- and presumably more susceptible to

disease -- than the average light drinker.

Interestingly enough, moderate drinkers tend to be wealthier and better-educated than non-drinkers and "are more likely to have all of their teeth." All of that makes the two groups even harder to study next to each other.

Scientists can argue all they want about whether moderate drinking extends lives. What's fairly certain is that moderate drinking certainly doesn't shorten lives and for most moderate drinkers, that's probably enough reason to keep filling the glass.

(Image via Flickr: Niemster)

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