All that talk of red wine and other alcoholic beverages being good for your health if consumed in moderation is just plain wrong, a new analysis contends.
Some degree of protection
A review of nearly 53,000 British people found little to no health benefit linked to alcohol consumption, once the results were adjusted for a range of personal, social, economic and lifestyle factors, the researchers reported.
"Based on the findings from this study, alcohol consumption appears to confer little to no protection against mortality [death] in most age-sex groups," said study author Craig Knott, a research associate in the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London.
Previous research has shown that light alcohol consumption may confer some degree of protection against early death and illness, with people who have fewer than two drinks per day living longer than both those who drink more and those who don't drink at all, the researchers said.
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But these earlier studies were flawed because researchers lumped former drinkers in with people who've never touched a drop, calling all of them non-drinkers and then comparing them to people who imbibe lightly, Knott said.
"Importantly, former drinkers appear to be less healthy and at greater risk of mortality than never drinkers," he said. "With existing research having largely grouped former and never drinkers together, there was the possibility that protective effects seen among lighter drinkers may be less a consequence of a real biological relationship and more a statistical artifact arising from their comparison against people who are simply less healthy."
In this study, published in the BMJ, researchers compared interview data from the annual Health Survey for England with national death records, analysing the drinking habits and health of almost 53,000 people aged 50 and older.
Compared with people who never drank, any protective benefits from alcohol were largely limited to men aged 50 to 64 who reported having an average 15 to 20 drinks a week, and women 65 and older who had an average 10 drinks or less per week, the investigators found.
And even for these groups, the benefits are so minimal that they might be explained by so-called "selection bias" – "including but not limited to the possibility that individuals participating in a study are healthier than those who do not," Knott said.
Most of alcohol's benefits evaporated after factoring in various definitions of occasional drinking, as well as a range of other personal and social influences, the study authors said.
Read: Health benefits and risks of alcohol
"On this basis, it seems sensible for current drinkers to consider moderating the amount of alcohol they consume, and for non-drinkers to remain abstinent," Knott said.
The potential benefits of alcohol must be weighed against the increased risk of cancer, liver disease and other illnesses associated with drinking, Knott said.
"Even if alcohol did turn out to be protective against a certain condition, it may also increase your risk of other developing other health complaints," he noted.
Dr. Scott Krakower is assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York. He said the new study "adds to the growing literature that drinking alcohol is more deleterious than what has been portrayed by the media and advertisements".
And, Krakower said, "in particular, persons aged 65 years or older should be warned about these risks, as alcohol can be lethal when mixed with prescription medications."
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