The evidence keeps on growing: alcohol’s health benefits are no old wives’ tale

    25 August 2016

    You may recall the Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davies, telling us in January that there is ‘no safe level of drinking’ and that the benefits of alcohol to the heart are an ‘old wives’ tale’.

    The first of these claims ignores the fact that the benefits of moderate drinking in reducing heart disease, stroke and diabetes risk outweigh the relatively minor cancer risk, hence lower rates of mortality among moderate drinkers. The second claim is simply untrue. A mountain of evidence exists showing the benefits of moderate drinking and it just keeps on growing.

    This month alone, a couple of studies have been published looking at this supposedly contested issue and came to the usual conclusion.

    First up, data from the British Nurses’ Study published in the American Journal of Public Health led to the following findings:

    Regular alcohol intake has both risks and benefits. In analyses using repeated assessments of alcohol over time and deaths from all causes, women with low to moderate intake and regular frequency (greater than three days/week) had the lowest risk of mortality compared with abstainers and women who consumed substantially more than one drink per day.


    As an important component of a healthy lifestyle, we have found that light to moderate alcohol consumption was one of the five most important modifiable contributors to lowering the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and total mortality. Describing alcohol as a component of a healthy diet rather than providing clinical advice only on drinking or not drinking may be the best method to translate our results in a clinical population.

    This, of course, is the opposite of Sally Davies’s advice.

    Next, a large study in Social Science and Medicine looked at relatively young people (under 40) in the US and goes to great lengths to account for the ‘sick quitters’ whom some say undermine decades of evidence. The theory is that people who went teetotal because they used to have an alcohol problem are less healthy as a result of their past drinking. Superficially plausible, as an explanation for the different health status of teetotallers and moderate drinkers it has been refuted time after time in studies which rarely get mentioned by the ‘sceptics’.

    First, we construct two categories of non-drinkers, lifetime abstainers and former drinkers. Our lifetime abstainer category includes only individuals who have never had a drink of alcohol in their life. Our measure of former drinkers includes individuals who report abstaining from alcohol in the past year. By separating these drinking categories, we considerably reduce the possibility that our study suffers from abstainer bias. Second, we also examine the relationships between moderate alcohol use and health after controlling for past drinking behaviors. Thus, we minimise the likelihood that any estimated effects are due to changes in alcohol consumption resulting from an illness.

    … Our final sample, after excluding participants with missing data, consists of 15,482 subjects, including 7,207 men and 8,275 women.

    Bearing in mind that Davies claimed in January that whatever health benefits she grudgingly accepted only applied to old people, let’s look at the conclusion:

    Our findings are generally consistent — especially for younger women — with an accumulating body of research demonstrating positive associations between moderate alcohol use and health, even after accounting for abstainer bias.

    Looks like another two studies can be added to the massive body of evidence showing the same thing.

    Smart people, those old wives.