The idea that alcohol consumption might be good for our health is not a new one, and a welter of studies comparing non-drinkers' health with that of drinkers has inspired hope among those who imbibe that it's true.
But a new study of people older than 50 largely scotches that hope. Unless you're a woman over 65, alcohol consumption is unlikely to forestall your death, a group of British researchers has found. For these older women, they add, the health benefits of alcohol are not enormous, but drinkers were less likely to die during a follow-up period of between six and 10 years.
The same study initially returned findings that men between the ages of 50 and 65 might reap a small benefit from drinking alcohol. But those apparent benefits evaporated when the researchers scrubbed from their non-drinking "reference group" all those who used to drink but have stopped.
This strange twist does more than disappoint middle-aged men eager to believe that alcohol makes them more robust. It also casts doubt on many studies that have concluded that drinkers are healthier than those who don't imbibe.
It turns out that former drinkers, who may have quit because they became ill or were recovering alcoholics, are a much less-healthy group than people who simply never drank at all. But researchers often lump these former drinkers together with people who have always been teetotalers (the authors of the current study estimate that more than half of those who call themselves non-drinkers are misclassified as people who never drank).
The inclusion of these less-healthy former drinkers makes the average health of "non-drinkers" look poorer. In comparison, those who consume alcohol tend to look healthier.
In the current study, when these former drinkers were expunged from the comparison-group of teetotalers, the non-drinking group suddenly looked healthier. And the bar for showing alcohol's health benefits rose. The apparent benefits of alcohol--at least for men 50-to-65--vanished.
Published Tuesday in the journal BMJ Open, the study suggests that many studies finding health benefits from alcohol consumption suffer from the same fatal flaw. The benefits of alcohol consumption, therefore, have generally been overstated in recent research.
But let's get back to those older ladies. In the current study, compared to women over 65 who were lifelong teetotalers, they were 24% to 33% less likely to die during the study period. And those health benefits did not significantly vary with the amount women drank: those who claimed they drank two or fewer drinks per month were just as protected against death from any cause as those who drank 15 or even 20 "units" of alcohol per week.
The authors warn that older drinkers are more likely to have health conditions, and to take medicine for them, that impair their ability to metabolize alcohol. That puts this group of people at greater risk from drinking alcohol. Even the finding that alcohol consumption benefits older women, they caution, may be the result of "selection bias," wherein the group of women polled for this study were somehow unusually healthy.