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As you Age, A Drink A Day May Help Keep The Doctor Away

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Just a quick note on my way to the package store:

In thousands of nurses, moderate drinking in mid-life appears to be linked to a healthier old age, according to a new study just published in the journal PLoS medicine.

Just joking about the package store. In fact, the study's lead author, Dr. Qi Sun, an Instructor in Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, says the study's results still leave him cautious about recommending that non-drinkers take up the bottle, because other research has found that even moderate drinking may slightly raise the risk of breast cancer.

But the results do mean, he said, that in people who already drink moderately, the benefits may be significant. So, to put his quantitative analysis into my own words, "Cheers!" (And don't forget that exercise and healthy weight maintenance have also been shown to lead to a healthier old age.)

The study fits in to a growing body of research that has found health benefits from "moderate" drinking equivalent to about one-third glass to one glass of wine per day. It did not distinguish between types of alcohol, but Qi said that the nurses in the study did tend to drink wine rather than beer or hard alcohol.

From the press release:

Researchers evaluated alcohol consumption during middle age in 121, 700 participants in BWH’s Nurses’ Health Study using data from food frequency questionnaires. They included participants who were not heavier drinkers when middle-aged and examined the health status in the 13,984 women who lived to 70 years and over.

After controlling for other factors such as smoking, body mass index, and family history of heart disease, researchers found that regular, moderate alcohol consumption during middle age is related to successful aging, which is defined as having no major chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes, and no major cognitive and physical impairment, or mental health limitations—in those who live to 70 years and beyond.

Specifically researchers report that women who drank 5–15 g of alcohol per day, which equals 1/3 - 1 drink, had about a 20 percent higher chance of successful aging when compared to non-drinkers. Women who consumed alcohol on a regular basis had a better chance of good overall health when older; when compared to occasional drinkers and when compared to women who didn’t drink, women who drank five to seven days a week had almost 50% greater chance of successful aging.

Mightn't it be, I asked Qi, that the moderate drinking is not a cause of better health? That in fact, it's the laid-back, fun-loving but non-overdoing temperaments of moderate drinkers that contribute to a better old age?

It would be incredibly challenging to set up a clinical trial to determine whether the moderate alcohol is actually a cause rather than just a correlation, he said. But there is ample reason to believe that it is: animal experiments have documented the beneficial physiological effects of moderate alcohol, and other epidemiological studies in humans have found similar effects.

This program aired on September 7, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth blog.

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