Alcohol: Healthy or Deadly?

I was chatting with a friend recently about a new breakfast place in town.  She said the food was OK, but hey, they have breakfast cocktails. My response: Cocktails?  Like with alcohol?  Ugh.  Not that I’m puritanical about alcohol.  Like they say, it’s always 5 o’clock somewhere, but the thought of drinking any alcohol before 5 o’clock is not on my radar screen.  Especially not at 8 a.m.

Which brings up an article I saw recently on the AARP website: Is A Little Drinking Really So Bad?  Just in time for the holiday season, I was hoping for a sane discussion of this frequently touchy subject.  I ended up disappointed.  Nothing new and a lot of rehashing of the old.

Here’s a brief summary of what this article said:

  • It’s popular to talk about health benefits of alcohol, particularly red wine.  The health claims come from research on chemicals found in red wine and grapes which allegedly confer health benefits.
  • But Noooooo!  Other studies claim that any amount of drinking is associated with higher risk of death from various diseases.  The conclusion is that no one should drink at all, because…. higher risk of death.

What to do?  

First let’s look at where all this data came from.  It’s from self-reported alcohol consumption.  In other words, the researchers asked study subjects to honestly and truthfully report how many alcoholic beverages they drink. Let’s think about that.  In the US, centuries after the Puritans disappeared and decades after Prohibition was finally repealed, alcoholic beverages still have disreputable taint.  So the study subject might mis-remember or underestimate or deliberately fudge on the answer.  The person might drink heavily 2-3 times a week while socializing, or drink a couple of beers every evening or a couple of glasses of wine or cocktails.  But they want to look like a “good” person to the researcher, so they answer “Oh, I only have a beer once or twice a week” or “I have a glass of wine sometimes with dinner”.  Sometimes meaning what exactly?  So these answers get erroneously categorized as “moderate” consumption.

If hundreds or thousands of study subjects do this, we end up with junk data and junk conclusions.  In fact, I’d say it’s impossible to do any meaningful research on the relationship of moderate alcohol consumption to health, because no one is going to truthfully report what they’re drinking thanks to perceived judgmental attitudes.

Alcohol and Older Women

As I discuss in my book, age impacts our ability to metabolize alcohol, magnifying potential problems.  The alcohol stays in your system longer, impairing cognitive and muscular function in the short term, increasing risk for falls and accidents.  Alcohol is dehydrating, which can lead to medical problems.  Alcohol abuse can cause liver damage.  When alcohol replaces food, nutritional status is adversely affected.  Obviously excessive intake is a bad idea.

So what is moderate consumption?  True to the sometimes tiresome US obsession with establishing numerical standards, we have a definition of moderate drinking: 12 oz of beer or 5 oz of wine per day.  Where did that come from?  I think they pulled it out of a hat.  Or just used standard serving sizes because that was easy.  However, these days standards go out the window when you’re at a bar or restaurant or even in your own home.  Giant wine glasses, super-sized cocktails and the like do not fit those standards.  The traditional pint at a British pub doesn’t fit either, so traveler beware. 

Despite the dire warnings about alleged ill effects of any drinking whatsoever, many researchers still (grudgingly) leave room for moderate consumption.  Occasionally — such as at a holiday party — you might drink more than that.  Key word: occasionally.  If you realize your usual consumption has morphed into 2 or more drinks a day, or you find yourself regularly consuming breakfast cocktails, it’s time to reconsider.  The long-term impact on physical health cannot be ignored.