Alcohol’s Health Benefits: Myth or Reality?

A New Zealand study involving nearly 3,000 participants (adequate sample size: check!) explored the effects of socioeconomic status, alcohol consumption, and health late in life.

By nature of being a longitudinal study, or one which follows participants for several years, we can’t draw firm scientific conclusions from estimates, such as when participants answer the question “How many servings of vegetables did you eat last week?” Even the most well-intentioned guess won’t be accurate since no measurement is involved. These studies are also limited by what we already know to ask, which means it’s very possible (and almost guaranteed) that observers will miss the results they aren’t looking for. (Proper variable control: No luck.)

Although they can’t provide us with the “why,” longitudinal studies can give us the “what” by uncovering existing trends.

This study validated prior observations that increased income, high education level, and occupational prestige (together comprising socioeconomic status), as well as moderate alcohol consumption, are correlated with better health later in life. (Replicability: check!)

None of these factors is individually controversial. Those with greater means tend to have the resources to take better care of their health and disposable income to spend on alcohol

The researchers went a step further to determine how much of this health effect could be due to resources, and how much could be due to the protective effects of moderate alcohol consumption.

They found that alcohol still had a positive effect on health after controlling for individual socioeconomic predictors (income, education, occupation), but when all three were taken into account, the benefit was only marginal in women, and almost nonexistent in men.

So what does this mean?

If you read news coverage claiming this study debunked the “myth” that alcohol can be good for you, you might think the research showed that a single glass of bubbly is dangerous – or at the very least, not healthful.

But what these results really imply is two-fold.

First, the occasional glass of wine is not a replacement for the combined stress-relieving, health-improving benefits of robust medical care, the comfort of wealth, and job satisfaction. (Duh?) Once an individual reaches a certain threshold of health, alcohol’s benefits of reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and reducing coronary heart disease aren’t as noticeable.

It’s comparable to taking supplements in addition to consuming a varied diet high in fruits, vegetables, and protein. A little extra calcium won’t hurt, but its benefits won’t be as noticeable as they might be for someone who is calcium deficient.

Secondly, far from proving that responsible alcohol consumption is bad, this study indicates that moderate consumption can absolutely be part of a healthy lifestyle.

We’ll raise a glass to that.