It is with a heavy heart that I tell you what you probably already knew to be true: moderate drinking probably isn't that "good for you."
According to a recent review, conducted by the University of Victoria in British Columbia and published in The Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, the evidence that alcohol has positive health benefits is as thin as the legs on your Pinot. The findings in this recent review and meta-analysis of over 87 studies on alcohol use and mortality risk suggests that low-volume alcohol consumption may not be as beneficial as we — okay, I — would like to believe.
It does seem that, in some of the studies, data had been skewed by an "abstainer bias," due to the fact that some of the "abstainers" included in the studies were former drinkers — not life-long abstainers — who had quit drinking for health-related reasons.That's a little surprising because, even if I stopped drinking tomorrow and abstained for the rest of my life, I would think there would be a pretty big difference between my health and the health of a lifetime non-drinker. Also, people who drink so much that they have to quit imbibing for health reasons probably have less than healthy tendencies than those who only have a couple of glasses of red wine a week. However, this doesn't mean that it's the red wine that's prolonging the low-volume drinker's life.
Of the 87 studies reviewed, only 13 used lifetime abstainers as a reference group, but when the data was adjusted to remove this "abstainer bias," low-volume alcohol consumption was still not shown to be more beneficial, health-wise, than teetotaling or occasional drinking:
Estimates of mortality risk from alcohol are significantly altered by study design and characteristics. Meta-analyses adjusting for these factors find that low-volume alcohol consumption has no net mortality benefit compared with lifetime abstention or occasional drinking. These findings have implications for public policy, the formulation of low-risk drinking guidelines, and future research on alcohol and health.
As with most health issues, class plays a role. In an interview with NPR, Dr. Timothy Naimi, a physician and epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center and one of the study's authors, explained how moderate drinkers could have the upper hand socially:
"... moderate drinkers tend to be very socially advantaged," Naimi says. Moderate drinkers tend to be healthier on average because they're well-educated and more affluent, not because they're drinking a bottle of wine a week on average. "[Their] alcohol consumption ends up looking good from a health perspective because they're already healthy to begin with."
If I'm being completely honest with myself, I've never truly believed that alcohol was benefiting my health in any way, whether I was drinking "moderately" or not. In the words of Jennie Connor, chair in preventive and social medicine at the University of Otago in New Zealand, "As an intoxicating, addictive, toxic, carcinogenic drug, alcohol is not a good choice as a therapeutic agent."
Of course, studies that seek to determine the life-long effects of a substance are difficult by nature. Though you can find correlations, proving cause and effect is much more challenging particularly when you are dealing with people. People are complex, ever-changing messes with a lot of variables, and trying to isolate the impact of one substance on an individual's mortality is challenging, which is why the peer review process is so important.
Though this review didn't address the health effects of every single kind of alcoholic beverage, it brought to light a bias that needed to be addressed, and will hopefully encourage a more thorough look at studies of this kind.