Wine drinkers outlive nondrinkers, or so the studies show. But nondrinkers are not all created equal, and that along with other factors makes it difficult to draw firm inferences about healthy drinking. For example, an oft-cited problem is what is called the “sick quitter” hypothesis, which holds that among the nondrinkers are those with a history of problem drinking. Their health having already suffered, the comparison may be unfair by lumping them in with healthier folks who abstain for religious or other personal reasons. Moderate wine drinkers may differ socioeconomically or in other important demographic variables. Anti-alcohol advocates are quick to point out such problems with population studies.
So while there are several studies showing greater average lifespan in wine drinkers, more needs to be done. One good study out this summer may give comfort to wine drinkers and help dispel some of the critics. The project, a joint effort of Stanford University and the University of Texas, looked at all-cause mortality over a 20-year period, comparing various factors to death rates, beginning with a study cohort of individuals aged 55-65. As we have come to expect from such studies, death rate was twice as high in nondrinkers compared to moderate drinkers, and 70% higher in heavy drinkers. This is the classic J-shaped curve that defines just about any disease condition when plotted against wine consumption.
What’s different about this latest report is that the researchers went to great lengths to adjust for the effects of previous problem drinkers and socioeconomic factors. Taking all of this into account, the differences were less dramatic but still clear, with moderate drinkers still only about half as likely to die of any cause compared to teetotalers.
Ultimately the question of how drinking affects lifespan is too complicated to reduce to a simple mathematical formula anyway. Alcohol remains a part of whatever the formula is, just in the right amounts. Wine drinkers do a lot of other healthy things, and have a higher quality of life in old age too. Viva vino!
Holahan CJ, Schutte KK, Brennan PL, Holahan CK, Moos BS, Moos RH. Late-Life Alcohol Consumption and 20-Year Mortality. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2010 Aug 24.