Do moderate drinkers live longer compared to abstainers?

From time to time we read about studies that claim that moderate drinkers live longer and healthier lives (mainly thanks to reduction of cardiovascular mortality) compared to abstainers.

One of the latest studies, published by European Journal of Epidemiology, was mentioned by a CEO of Estonian brewery during a live TV debate at Estonian National Television. With that he claimed that we cant speak about alcohol as something that does´nt have risk-free level and that in fact if drunk in moderation it can be healthy.

The study is called Effect of major lifestyle risk factors, independent and jointly, on life expectancy with and without cardiovascular disease: results from the Consortium on Health and Ageing Network of Cohorts in Europe and the United States (CHANCES) and it analysed 50+ men and women from three different European cohorts.

As a main result the study found that men and women aged 50 years who have a favourable lifestyle (overweight but not obese, light/moderate drinker, non-smoker and participates in vigorous physical activity) lived between 7.4 (in Tromsø men) and 15.7 (in ESTHER women) years longer than those with an unfavourable lifestyle (overweight but not obese, light/moderate drinker, smoker and does not participate in physical activity).

As you can see the main findings showed the importance of avoiding smoking and being physically active. But it did compare also moderate drinkers with abstainers.

I contacted with the leading author dr Mark G. O’Doherty from the Queens University in Belfast to ask some questions and get a direct information from the source. This was his explanation: “The increased risk seen among non-drinkers continues to arouse debate; can this increased risk in part arise from subsamples of non-drinkers who gave up because of some ill health effects (ex-drinkers), hence they are included within this category alongside those who have never drank. Non-drinkers contained everyone who reported as non-drinkers, this includes ex-drinkers and never drinkers.“

As you are probably aware there are already numerous analyzes showing that the abstainers group included also ex-drinkers whose health was perhaps already ruined and that was also the reason why they stopped drinking. Therefore it is possible that these studies are comparing people who started drinking in a later age (moderate drinkers) with sober alcoholics who now abstain from alcohol (abstainers). But that is not known to the scienticts who are analysing the available data. They just dont have it.

Dr O’Doherty emphazised also that „as a cohort study, we can only present findings based on associations and not give conclusive causal advice on the link between light/moderate alcohol consumption and mortality for example.“

Studies are dependent on the original data that is analysed. This study confirmed the importance of avoiding smoking and being physically active. But it does´nt give any new information on alcohol.

At the same time when this study was published new UK low-risk drinking guidelines were also introduced. Explaining the need for updated guidelines following was said: “It is now known that the risks start from any level of regular drinking and increase with the amount being drunk, and the new guidelines are aimed at keeping the risk of mortality from cancers or other diseases low. The links between alcohol and cancer were not fully understood in the original guidelines, which came out in 1995.

This review also found that the benefits of alcohol for heart health only apply for women aged 55 and over. The greatest benefit is seen when these women limit their intake to around 5 units a week, the equivalent of around 2 standard glasses of wine. The group concluded that there is no justification for drinking for health reasons.”

Lauri Beekmann, NordAN