Is alcohol really good for your health?
What the research reveals might surprise you
W e’ve long been told that a little wine with dinner may help prevent heart disease and perhaps offer other health benefits.
But some researchers are now questioning whether the perks of moderate drinking—one drink per day for women, two for men—really outweigh potential downsides.
We know that in older adults, too much alcohol can exacerbate high blood pressure, increase the risk of falls and fractures, and lead to strokes, memory loss, and mood disorders. And in this group, alcohol problems, such as the uncontrollable urge to drink, shot up 107 percent between 2001 and 2013, according to a study published in August in JAMA Psychiatry.
Even small amounts of alcohol can interact with medication (see chart here for a list of which ones), and contribute to cancer risk and potentially cognitive decline.
Here’s the latest research and tips on how to ensure that you’re not going overboard:
Benefits and Risks
More than 100 studies have found that a drink or two per day is linked to a 25 to 40 percent reduced risk of heart attack, stroke, and death from cardiac-related problems, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Another study published in August, one that followed more than 333,000 people for 12 years, found that light to moderate drinkers were 21 to 34 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.
But no studies have yet proved directly that alcohol boosts human health. Most research in this area has looked at whether people’s reported drinking behaviors are “associated” with positive or negative health outcomes.
A growing stack of research also suggests that regular, moderate alcohol consumption may have its hazards.
A 30-year study published in June in the British Medical Journal found that men who consumed eight to 12 drinks per week had three times the odds of having an atrophied hippocampus, which is a possible sign of early Alzheimer’s disease. That’s according to the study’s author, Anya Topiwala, Ph.D., a clinical lecturer in the department of psychiatry at the University of Oxford in the U.K.
And other research has found that moderate drinking may be linked to an elevated risk of breast cancer and—especially in smokers—esophageal, mouth, and throat cancers.
Watch Your Intake
Although moderate drinking isn’t without risks, a daily glass of wine is generally fine, says George F. Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, even if you’re in your 80s or 90s.
“We don’t want to panic people,” Topiwala adds.
But if you don’t drink, she says, there’s no reason to start for your health’s sake. And if you find yourself exceeding the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, Koob says, there’s no controversy: Consider cutting back.
These strategies can help:
Size up your pour. It can be almost impossible to eyeball a standard drink (5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1½ ounces of distilled spirits). Some wineglasses can hold up to 22 ounces, more than the amount in four drinks. So use a measuring cup or a shot glass to get it right.
Keep tabs. Tracking how many drinks you have per day or week—perhaps with tick marks on a cocktail napkin—can help you stay within your limit.
Alternate with water. Sipping a glass of water or club soda after each alcoholic drink will help you slow down.
Talk to your doctor. If you’re concerned about your drinking, don’t be afraid to bring up the issue at your next checkup.
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the November 2017 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.
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