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The Princeton Longevity Center Medical News

Drink to Your Health

If the recession is threatening to drive you to drink, can you at least take some comfort that it may be good for your health?

It has been a long-held belief that moderate wine intake could lower the risk of heart disease and improve life expectancy.  This has often been referred to as the “French Paradox”.  The French, living in a country where almost everyone smokes, exercise is considered an American oddity and much of the food is high in fat, have a lower rate of cardiovascular disease than Americans.  Perhaps it is their high intake of wine that offers protection against those other nasty lifestyle habits.

Of course, there are numerous other factors that may also be important in reducing heart attack risk among the French.  Their lifestyle is less stressful in general than that of Americans.  While the typical French diet does contain some saturated fats, their diet is also higher in polyunsaturated fats and is lower in animal fats that are believed to be more dangerous to the arteries.  The French are generally thinner than the average American, eat smaller portions and consume less carbohydrates.  While they may find little use for health clubs and fitness centers, they are usually more physically active as part of their lifestyle and leisure time than we are.  Some of the “paradox” may also be explained by under-reporting of heart attacks as a cause of death in France.

Early studies in the US indicated a link between moderate alcohol intake and better health.  But these studies have suffered from being retrospective surveys that relied upon accurate recall and reporting of drinking habits from prior years.  One study participant may report that he/she has a drink every night and is in excellent health. Another may report he/she has health problems and does not drink  Does that mean that having a drink each night has protected the first one’s health?  Or, does it mean that when the second person developed health problems, he/she stopped drinking.  Separating which is the cause and which is the effect can be very difficult  If there is an effect from drinking, is it due to the alcohol, something else in the wine, or do people who relax with a drink in the evening have less stress and an overall healthier lifestyle?

More recent studies have been better designed.  Following study participants over a period of years provides much more accurate data about their actual drinking habits and other cardiac risk factors.  These studies have tended to reinforced the link between moderate alcohol intake and decreased risk for cardiovascular disease.  A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2006 followed more than 51,000 health professionals for 16 years.  The participants were surveyed twice a year regarding not only their drinking habits but also numerous other lifestyle factors.  Even among men who ate a healthy diet, exercised at least 30 minutes per day and had a normal weight there was more than a 50% reduction  in heart attacks in the group that had two drinks a day compared with the non-drinkers.

Three studies published in the March issue of Gastroenterology showed that drinking moderate amounts of wine offered a protective effect against a particular type of esophageal cancer, adenocarcinoma, associated with acid reflux disease.  In one of the studies, those who drank wine had more than a 50% decrease in the incidence of Barrett’s Esophagus, a condition believed to be a precursor to this type of esophageal cancer. 

That is not to say that alcohol use should be viewed as a potential cancer preventive.  Most esophageal cancers are a different type, squamous cell carcinoma, which is believed to be increased by moderate to heavy alcohol intake.  And, there is evidence that alcohol intake can increase the risk of other cancers.

A report in the current issue of the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention looked at 6,327 women with breast cancer and compared them with women who had not been diagnosed with cancer.  The researchers found that the risk of breast cancer rose with the amount of alcohol intake.  Women who reported 14 or more drinks per week were 24% more likely to have breast cancer than non-drinkers.  In comparison, smoking increases the risk of breast cancer by 32%.  Women who had 7 to 14 drinks per week had an 11% increase in cancer risk.  In women who drank no more than 4 drinks per week there was no increase in breast cancer risk. No difference was seen between those who drank beer, liquor, red wine or white wine.

About 36% of women die of cardiovascular disease while about 3-4% die of breast cancer.  So,while an increased risk of breast cancer is a concern, in women at high risk for heart disease the decrease in their cardiac risk may be greater than the increase in breast cancer risk  Those at high risk for breast cancer may be wise to limit their drinking to no more than 3-4 drinks per week.
Of course, even moderate alcohol intake can be associated with other problems.  The average adult gains about 2 lbs per year, an amount which seems small from year to year but can lead to obesity over the course of 20-30 years.  Gaining 2 lbs per year equates to only about 20 excess calories per day.  With 50-150 calories in a typical serving of wine, beer or liquor, even 1 drink per day can make a large contribution to weight gain.  Alcohol is a carbohydrate and even moderate intake can be associated with insulin resistance and diabetes.  Higher levels of intake can cause liver damage.

Overall, it appears there may be a role for moderate alcohol intake in maintaining good health.  The effect is likely to be smaller than other more widely accepted strategies.  Exercising on a regular basis, eating 5 servings of healthy fruits and vegetables per day, avoiding saturated fats, eating polyunsaturated fats and not smoking are estimated to add about 14 years to the average lifespan.  The effects of moderate alcohol intake are likely to be much smaller than this.  But it is also unlikely to turn out to be very bad for you in the long run. 

We would not be likely to recommend to someone who does not drink alcohol that they take up the habit solely for potential health benefits.  There are cheaper and more proven ways to improve one’s health.  But if you enjoy the taste and relaxation of a drink in the evening you can probably take some comfort that it may turn out to have some benefits to your health.  Not everything that is good for you has to be unpleasant.

So choose a good bottle, uncork it and let it breathe, pour a glass, relax and enjoy.

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