Is Moderate Drinking Good For Your Health?

For the past three decades or so, the conventional wisdom has been that drinking alcohol at moderate levels is good for us. But is this actually backed up by scientific studies? Let's find out...

The evidence for this has come from many studies that have suggested the death rate for moderate drinkers is lower than that for non-drinkers. In other words, we thought moderate drinkers lived longer than those who didn’t drink at all.

This phenomenon has been communicated with great impact by the J-shaped curve that shows death rates fall as you move from non-drinking to moderate drinking, before rising again as drinking levels increase.

Most of us embraced these studies with enthusiasm. But the findings were probably too good to be true. The problem has always been the potential mixing of many other variables – called confounding factors – with drinking.

The concern was that non-drinkers as a group in many of these previous studies were different to moderate drinkers in many ways in addition to their drinking. Non-drinkers may have been unhealthier to begin with (hence not taking up drinking in the first place) or they may have included recovering alcoholics with poor health.

These confounding factors may have made moderate drinkers look healthier than they actually were (relative to non-drinkers) and thus have led us to associate moderate drinking with better health.

More recent studies have been able to address this challenge of separating out the effect of drinking on health, independent of other confounding factors. And these newer studies tell us moderate drinking is probably not good for us at all.

Instead of the J-shaped curve described previously, the most recent evidence is showing a curve that continues on an upward trajectory.

As you increase your level of drinking beyond not drinking at all, for all levels of drinking, your health outcomes worsen. The curve starts off relatively flat, before rising dramatically, indicating much higher rates of early death as drinking levels increase.

So what is the health cost of moderate drinking?

If we look a recent Lancet study that addressed this issue, we can start to make sense of this cost. This suggests that if you drink one alcoholic drink per day you have a 0.5% higher risk of developing one of 23 alcohol-related health conditions.

But risk expressed in this way is difficult to interpret. It’s only when we convert this to an absolute risk that we can begin to understand the actual magnitude of this risk to our health. It translates to four more illnesses* per 100,000 people due to alcohol, which is actually a pretty small risk (but an increased risk nonetheless).

While the health implications of moderate drinking have been a point of contention, it’s clear drinking excessively isn’t good. (Image: Getty Images)

This risk estimation assumes several things, including that you drink alcohol every single day, so you would expect the risk to be smaller for those who drink every other day or only occasionally.

The latest evidence suggests the health cost of light to moderate drinking, if there is one, is quite small. What was previously thought to be a marginal benefit of moderate alcohol drinking is now considered a marginal cost to health.

So for you as an individual, what does this new evidence mean?

Maybe it means having to lose the contentedness you have felt as you drink your evening glass of wine, believing it was also improving your health.

Or maybe this new evidence will give you the motivation to reduce your drinking, even if you are only a moderate drinker.

Of course, if you get pleasure from drinking responsibly, and you have no intention of changing your drinking habits, then you will have to consider and accept this potential cost to your health.

But remember, the evidence is still incontrovertible that drinking high levels of alcohol is very bad for you. It will shorten the length of your life and affect the quality of your life and those around you.

The Conversation

Hassan Vally, Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

This story has been updated since its original publication.


Comments

    so basically if you cherry pick you data you can swing this ether way

    Wait 6-12 months and there'll be a study that contradicts that study that contradicts the study the contradicts the study.

    Drinking is the act of consuming a liquid of any description. Why is it that people who think they are literary competent are far from the fact.
    It is time to use correct English in an English-speaking country and distinguish 'drinking' into it's various form because drinking as an action has nothing to do with consuption of alcoholic beverages alone.
    "Have you been drinking today ?", "Yes, I drank some coffee, I drank several glasses of water and I was drinking a lemon squash in a tavern with a friend."

    Laziness in language use by the majority of human beings is a disease.

    Last edited 21/05/19 10:18 am

      Is is time to use correct English in an English-speaking country and distinguish 'drinking' into it's various form...
      As one pedant to another, I agree that its is is time to use correct English.

      Jesus Christ get over yourself and have a drink.

    Quit targeting the use of alcoholic beverages which is not at epidemic proportions and your one-side information is false, the proof is with millions of senior citizens aged 80 to over 90 years of age who drink alcoholic beverages on a regular basis.

    Create articles on methods of wiping out the massive epidemic of illegal drug use, although it is good for incompetent humans without any respect for life and living.

    University lecturers are the epitome of human beings who live in a cloistered world of 'make-believe', of which the make-believe is a blog of their own invention which they believe will be of interest to the population of the world, but in truth, the minority of ignorant and uneducated people in the world believe everything written by university lecturer lay-about individuals who dislike an alcoholic beverage but drink non-alcoholic beverages such as water produced in their locality which includes poisonous chlorine and brother fluoride added to warp the brains of the consumers.........including lecturers.

    Primitive humans have been consuming alcoholic , home-made beverages for thousands of years and lived fruitful lives beyond 90 years old.

    Typical of an article writer with an immature attitude to place an incorrect headline on the article.
    The title should be, "Is Moderate Drinking Bad For Your Health?"
    No, but being a vegetarian or vegan is, eating fatty food is, children eating cooked chips for a meal is, smoking cigars, cigarettes and tobacco is, illegal drugs is, and the list is a long one of items eaten or drank which are bad for human health.

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