Most people know excessive alcohol consumption can lead to poor health outcomes and contribute to risks for chronic and fatal diseases. It’s also not a great look; really, there’s only so much abuse your liver can take before you’re no longer the life of the party.
But drinking in moderation has a different and much more positive association. Some research suggests a few drinks each week—like a glass of wine with dinner or a couple of beers at the end of the day—may actually be beneficial to health. These studies insist that drinking can lower risk for heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease and extend your life. Others say moderate drinking can reduce risk for deafness, hip fractures, the common cold, cancers, birth complications and liver cirrhosis. Forget your primary care physician! Everyone get to the bar!
But wait. A new meta-analysis of these pro-booze studies suggests most are misleading and there’s probably not much to gain from moderate drinking other than temporarily taking the edge off after a stressful day.
“There's a general idea out there that alcohol is good for us, because that's what you hear reported all the time. But there are many reasons to be skeptical.” Tim Stockwell, lead researcher on the analysis and director of the University of Victoria's Centre for Addictions Research in British Columbia, said in a press statement. “A fundamental question is, who are these moderate drinkers being compared against?”
The analysis, based on 87 studies investigating the benefits of alcohol consumption for health, was published March 22 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
The researchers say a close examination found flaws in the design of the majority of these studies that could skew the number to show that drinking is beneficial. Many of the studies that find a positive benefit to moderate drinking include control groups that are current abstainers. But teetotalism isn’t what is ruining their health. More likely, this study population includes people who are already in poor health and abstaining from alcohol due to existing medical conditions.
The team of researchers reanalyzed the data after factoring in this bias and other features in study designs that could produce unreliable data. In the end, they found only 13 of the 87 studies in their analysis were able to avoid bias—and those studies didn’t demonstrate any remarkable life-extending benefits.
Overall, the review of the data suggests that it was occasional drinkers (categorized as less than one drink per week) who actually lived longest and enjoyed the most robust health. Most likely, this isn’t because a touch of booze is an elixir of life, but rather because the amount of alcohol is too negligible to have effects—bad or good.