We’ve all heard those stories – the 90-year-old man who seems fitter than a 60-year-old and credits it to the glass of whisky he drinks with unfailing regularity every day; or the great-grandma approaching 100 who is still the life of every party and swears by a certain brand of Sicilian red wine she has been having at lunch for the past seven decades.
But anecdotal evidence apart, what does science say? Is it true that alcohol consumption in moderate quantities adds years to your life? If yes, how much is adequate and what is too much?
Unfortunately, though many researchers have studied the relationship between alcohol in moderate quantities and longevity, it is hard to pinpoint how many, if any, years are added to one’s life.
Before we look at some of these studies, it’s important to understand the meaning of the term ‘moderate consumption’.
A glass a day?
The harmful effects of drinking too much alcohol are well known: it can cause liver disease; lead to a higher risk of high blood pressure, dementia and certain kinds of cancers; and result in a higher risk of injuries, including fatal accidents due to drink-driving, homicides and suicides. Overconsumption of alcohol is also linked to lapses in judgment such as riskier sexual behaviour or use of drugs.
Since all of these adverse effects can have a negative impact on longevity, the question to ask is – At what level of moderate drinking are these impacts nullified or even reversed?
According to one study, light drinkers (defined as those who consume one to three drinks per week) had the lowest rates of cancer or death when compared to those consuming less than 1 drink per week.
Another study has linked light drinking to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. This hints at the possibility of a positive impact of light drinking on longevity.
But studies like these rely heavily on self-reporting and there are limitations on following subjects’ drinking habits across a lifespan.
Moderate drinking, defined
For a healthy adult, moderate alcohol translates into up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men.
Practically, one drink roughly means 12 fluid ounces (355 millilitres) of beer, or 5 fluid ounces (148 millilitres) of wine, or 1.5 fluid ounces (44 millilitres) of distilled spirits (80 proof).
The advantages of moderate drinking are varied:
- Reduces the risk of developing and dying of heart disease
- May reduce the risk of ischemic stroke (this is when arteries to the brain become narrowed or blocked, leading to severely restricted blood flow)
- May lessen the risk of diabetes
On the other hand, you can get all these benefits by simply being physically active. And even light drinkers have a slightly increased risk of certain cancers like esophageal cancer.
The latest (2020-2025) Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults can choose not to drink or drink in moderation by limiting alcohol intake to 1 drink or less a day for women or 2 drinks or less a day for men, on days when alcohol is consumed.
More significantly perhaps, the guidelines do not recommend that people who do not drink start drinking for any reason. And naturally, for those choosing to drink alcoholic beverages, less is always better than more.
Living longer with alcohol: a complex question
A research project by the University of California Irvine’s Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders that got a lot of people excited revealed that people who live to be 90 or older drink moderate amounts of alcohol. Specifically, the research linked drinking two glasses of beer or wine every day to an 18% reduced risk of dying prematurely.
But that’s only one way of looking at it. It’s possible to look at the same numbers and conclude that people who were going to live longer anyway because of a host of other factors are also better at handling alcohol. Why? Simple, because their overall health is better.
This is a classic chicken-and-egg situation. Does alcohol consumption in moderate quantities contribute to longevity or is it a pleasant perk of living longer?
Other studies have raised doubts over this supposed link with longevity.
For instance, after analysing data from 36,000 adults aged 50 and above who consumed two units of alcohol per day, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that they showed brain changes equivalent to two years of aging.
Moreover, there is evidence that the effect of alcohol consumption on the brain is exponential, which means that the more you drink, the stronger the effect in terms of brain aging. Researchers say that the difference between no drinks and four drinks is roughly equivalent to more than 10 years of aging.
So, what’s the bottom line?
As you might have guessed by now, the studies linking alcohol consumption to longevity point in seemingly contradictory directions. This is not because the studies are not robust enough but because of the inherent challenges in measuring the benefits of consuming alcohol in an isolated manner.
Longevity has been linked to a number of factors including eating habits, a pollution-free environment, regular moderate exercise, and the ability to form close human relationships. If all of these factors are already present, a drink—or two—on some days of the week might not by itself have a detrimental effect on your health, and could even contribute to the feelings of wellness and sociability that help people live longer.
It is therefore safe to conclude that if you don’t drink, there is no reason to start. On the other hand, if you do drink, light or moderate consumption is just what the doctor ordered.