Is the Party Over? The Latest Research on the Pros and Cons of Drinking Alcohol

By Kristin Ohlson, November/December 2009

Scientists spill the truth about drinking and your health.

"I look forward to relaxing in the evening with a glass of red wine. If it's Friday....more likely two! We need to always consider our family health history, and remember to drink responsibly. Kudos to Kristen Ohlson for writing such an...

Glass still half full?

Researchers who conduct observational research believe that the level of consistency across different studies is highly compelling. They say they work hard to account for “confounding factors” (e.g., diet and exercise habits) that might skew the results. And sometimes, they’re able to support the observed benefits with the findings of small clinical trials.

Take, for example, diabetes. Observational studies have linked moderate alcohol consumption with lower rates of diabetes among people at high risk for the disease, particularly those who are overweight. (This was initially surprising since it’s well known that, in people who already have diabetes, drinking alcohol can cause blood-glucose levels to dip dangerously low or to spike alarmingly high.) One group of researchers followed up these observational studies with a small, three-month clinical trial that randomly split a group of nondrinkers with type 2 diabetes into two groups: one that received a daily “dose” of merlot or sauvignon blanc versus another that abstained. The moderate drinkers were able to control their blood-glucose levels better than the nondrinkers. Scientists still are trying to tease out the cascade of molecular events at work but it appears that, among other things, moderate alcohol consumption nudges fat cells to release a chemical called adiponectin.

“Adiponectin probably allows insulin to work more efficiently and do a better job of bringing glucose into our muscles and other tissues,” says Eric Rimm, Sc.D., a Harvard epidemiologist who studies the connection between alcohol and health.

While scientists try to hone in on the biochemistry that explains the health benefits seen in older observational studies, new studies keep pouring in. Geriatrician Kaycee Sink, M.D., M.A.S., from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, recently concluded what she believes is the largest, longest U.S. observational study to look at the effects of regular alcohol intake on dementia. She separated more than 3,000 seniors into current abstainers, light drinkers, moderate drinkers and heavy drinkers and evaluated them every six months for up to six years. At the conclusion of the study, moderate drinkers were 37 percent less likely to develop dementia than their nondrinking counterparts. The observed benefits of alcohol on the heart and brain are probably connected. To function optimally, the brain needs a healthy supply of blood, and it’s believed that alcohol’s beneficial effects on “good” HDL cholesterol may protect the brain as well as the heart. “Anything that’s good for your heart is probably also good for your brain,” says Sink.

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