Health, wealth, and wine

For most wine drinkers, vino is part of a lifestyle, one that includes many other factors influencing health. This creates a challenge for scientists interested in the relationship of wine to anti-aging and its effects on fitness. It’s well known for example that wine drinkers tend to be of higher socioeconomic status, better educated, and exercise more. But the origins of the Mediterranean diet, which revealed the French paradox, are from comparatively poor and rural populations, suggesting that it is the wine rather than the lifestyle. What do we know about healthy drinking and healthy living today?

Fewer people now drink wine in the purely traditional way today, at least as defined by the Mediterranean way of living. For many people wine is now an aspirational status symbol. One recent analysis of alcohol consumption patterns found that wine drinkers tended to use it as a source of “cultural capital” and a means of distinction, whereas those who preferred beer and spirits associated their alcohol consumption with having fun in social settings.(1) The same is true for binge drinkers, especially younger age groups; wine is 5 times less likely than beer or spirits to be the beverage of choice for episodes of excess consumption in young adults.(2) These patterns relate wine to both higher economic mobility and healthy behaviors.

Wine, at least of decent quality, probably costs more than other drinks at similar levels of total alcohol consumption, which could partly explain the linkage of wine to socioeconomic status. Increasing the minimum price for alcohol by raising taxes has been explored as a public health strategy, leveraging this connection in order to lessen alcohol intake. Some years ago the country of Finland undertook a social experiment in which they initiated a long term policy of escalating minimum alcohol prices. The results were reviewed in a report from the University of Helsinki in 2015.(3) Correlating death rates from alcohol-related causes to various factors including price,  they found evidence supporting the policy only among those with less education, and primarily for beer and spirits drinkers. Among the most highly educated there were no associations between the minimum prices of any beverages and mortality, and no evidence of an association between higher minimum prices for wine and rates of alcohol-related mortality in any of the population sub-groups. So wine worked for all socioeconomic levels, but was mostly linked to those already preferring wine.

The way I see it, the degree to which wine is healthful because of its biochemical alchemy and how much is due to its association with healthy living is not all that important. What IS important however is how we drink, how we integrate wine appreciation into the enjoyment of a fulfilling life.

  1. Brierley-Jones L, Ling J, McCabe KE, Wilson GB, Crosland A, Kaner EF, Haighton CA. Habitus of home and traditional drinking: a qualitative analysis of reported middle-class alcohol use. Sociol Health Illn. 2014 Sep;36(7):1054-76.
  2. Stern SA, Terry-McElrath YM, Patrick ME. Beverage-specific patterns of 5+ alcoholic drink consumption by young adults in the U.S. Addict Behav. 2017 Feb;65:19-24.
  3. Herttua K, Mäkelä P, Martikainen P. Minimum prices for alcohol and educational disparities in alcohol-related mortality. Epidemiology. 2015 May;26(3):337-43.

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