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Drinkers live longer than non-drinkers, says surprising study

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Research shows drinkers live longer than abstainers.

In a recent study published in the journal, Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, researchers made a surprising discovery about the lifespan of those who drink alcohol, compared with those who have never touched a drink in their life. They found that people who abstain from alcohol actually die sooner than those who enjoy it in moderation.

This startling finding was the result of research that showed more than 51.1 percent of the U.S. population who are 18-years and older drink alcohol in amounts of at least 12 alcoholic drinks per year.

Although the number of non-drinkers in America varies from 22.5 percent of men, to 11.6 percent of women, the number of moderate alcohol drinkers lies somewhere between those percentages, with moderate drinking defined as having up to 4 drinks per day.

Because excessive consumption of alcohol is a known factor that contributes to diseases, such as cirrhosis of the liver and certain brain disorders, it has long been held that drinking alcohol – even in moderation – may also shorten one’s lifespan.

But numerous studies over the years on mortality rates between drinkers and abstainers have found the exact opposite is true, as moderate drinkers actually live longer than abstainers who drink no alcohol at all.

One explanation, which comes from Alcoholics Anonymous, is that the participants in all these studies who abstained from alcohol completely were actually former alcoholics who had already developed health problems related to their previous alcohol drinking.

However, in a detailed and tightly controlled study recently conducted by psychologist Charles Holahan and colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin, the research team confirmed that those who drank in moderation lived longer that non-drinkers.

For the study, the researchers followed 1,824 people between the ages of 55 and 65 for a period of 20 years, taking into account numerous factors, such as their amount of physical activity, number of friends, socioeconomic status and several other variables.

The participants were put into one of three different groups: 1) abstainers – defined as those who never drank alcohol or had drank in the past, but stopped completely; 2) moderate drinkers – defined as those who drank 1 to 3 alcoholic drinks per day; and 3) heavy drinkers – defined as those who drank 4 or more alcoholic drinks per day.

After following the participants for a period of 20 years, the study found that among the three different groups, those with the lowest mortality rate were the moderate drinkers, followed by the heavy drinkers who actually out-lived the abstainers, who had the highest mortality rate, with 69 percent of the non-drinkers dying prematurely.

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In comparison, heavy drinkers fared much better than abstainers, with a 60 percent mortality rate, while moderate drinkers lived the longest of all, with a mortality rate of only 41 percent.

In contrast to the debunked theory from Alcoholics Anonymous that these findings were because the abstainers were former hard-core drinkers who already had alcohol-related diseases, the researchers of this latest study have a different explanation related to moderate drinking

According to the researchers, alcohol consumption in moderation relaxes people, helping to break down social barriers and boost confidence in social settings. In this regard, they refer to alcohol as "social lubricant" that helps fulfill the human need for strong social connections in order to maintain strong mental and physical health.

In other words, having a strong social network is good for one’s mental and physical health, which is just one the reasons the researchers cited in explaining why moderate drinkers live longer than their non-drinking and heavy drinking counterparts.

Another explanation is based on a recent study that found non-drinkers tend to suffer more from depression than drinkers, which suggests that drinkers are more sociable and therefore happier and more fulfilled in life than abstainers.

The researchers also concluded that another benefit of drinking alcohol in moderation, especially red wine, is that previous studies have demonstrated it promotes healthy hearts and improves circulation.

Red wine contains an antioxidant called Resveratrol, which has cancer-preventing properties and is also promoted as an anti-aging agent, although it remains largely unknown whether or not this has anything to do with the health benefits of drinking moderate amounts of red wine.

In the meantime, this latest study should not serve as an excuse to load up on alcoholic drinks, even in moderation, as not everyone can consume so-called “moderate” amounts of alcohol. Depending on who you listen to, “moderate” drinking can range from anywhere between 1 to 4 alcoholic drinks per day, while some organizations claim people who consume 4 drinks a day are “heavy drinkers”.

Also keep in mind that some drinkers tolerate alcohol better than others. For example, one women may be able to easily consume 2 glasses of wine with dinner, while another gets tipsy after drinking just a half a glass. Put simply, people have different tolerances to alcohol, not to mention different religious views, some of which prohibit drinking altogether.

Whatever the case, if you are going to imbibe, be respectful of others and never push alcohol on someone who declines a drink.

SOURCES: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Alcohol Use Data, Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research