- A recent review on alcohol studies shows that no amount of alcohol can protect against disease or extend a person's lifespan.
- The review also shows that even moderate drinking can carry the risk of significant health effects.
- The findings bring to light major flaws and biases in the design of thousands previous studies that reportedly found alcohol carried health benefits, including longevity.
It’s a sad day for wine lovers. Turns out, all the health benefits you thought you got from drinking one or two glasses of alcohol a day are not true at all.
In one of the largest reviews on moderate drinking, a recent study published in JAMA Network Open found major flaws and biases in the design of thousands of studies that reportedly found alcohol helps you live a longer life.
The results might come as a shock after decades of hearing that drinking can help lower your risk of disease. However, “there’s an increased understanding about how these biased bad studies and we need to look at better designed studies to get a clearer picture,” study co-author Tim Stockwell, PhD, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria in Canada, told Health.
Though previous research has been ambiguous, the new review shows a clear picture of alcohol’s effects on health: No amount of alcohol can protect against disease or extend a person’s lifespan—and even moderate drinking can have significant health effects.
Here’s what you need to know about drinking, and how its alleged health benefits aren’t all that legitimate.
Is Alcohol ‘Healthy’? The Answer’s Always Been Unclear.
Dr. Stockwell and his colleagues have been questioning the alleged health benefits of alcohol for decades.
His first probe was published in 2007 where he and his team reviewed 54 alcohol studies and found most grouped people who had stopped drinking because of age or worsening health as abstainers. This, in turn, created a bias that people who drank more were healthier.
When they reran the findings taking these biases into consideration, the authors found no link between alcohol and better heart health. “This created an absolute stir and bombshell that made headlines all over the world,” recalled Stockwell.
Since then, several studies have come out with similar findings: the benefits of alcohol vanish when you account for other circumstances. A 2022 study looking at the health outcomes of over 121,000 drinkers, for example, found an increased risk of heart disease in people who had the occasional beverage. Any boost in heart health from low-level drinkers had to do more from their healthy lifestyle than from the alcohol itself.
Of course, not everyone agrees. Since Stockwell’s initial study, there’s been research reporting cardioprotective effects and other health benefits from low-to-moderate alcohol consumption. Light drinking has also been linked to a lower risk of cirrhosis, a reduced risk for dementia and cognitive decline, and even making you less deaf.
“There’s all these apparent benefits from alcohol, which can’t be real,” Stockwell said. “People are making it sound like a panacea.”
The media also hasn’t always been clear about the true health effects of alcohol. During a 60 Minutes TV segment in 1991, correspondent Morley Safer introduced Americans to “The French Paradox”—the idea that the people of France were healthier than other nations, and credited that longevity to three sources: the Mediterranean diet, olive oil, and red wine.
The program was a boon to the alcohol industry, and since then, it’s worked hard to promote the claimed health benefits of drinking, Stockwell said, adding that beverage companies funded conferences and hand-picked experts that would talk about the advantages of drinking and downplaying any harmful consequences.
Additionally, most studies claiming moderate drinking was healthy were biased because the alcohol companies funded them and cherry-picked the results, adds Jarid Pachter, DO, a doctor specializing in addiction medicine from Stony Brook Medicine who was not involved in the study. “If this was a medication nobody would have ever validated them, but because big alcohol companies were behind them, they kind of slipped through the cracks and made people billions of dollars.”
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A Major Design Flaw in Most Alcohol Studies
The latest study in JAMA Network Open took a closer look at the scientific data that often guides alcohol-related policies. The team expanded their review to 107 alcohol studies published between 1980 and 2021. Their analysis included the drinking habits of 4.8 million people, making it one of the largest pieces of evidence criticizing alcohol’s lack of health benefits.
One main issue that kept coming up in the studies was how difficult it was to measure the course of drinking over a person’s lifetime. Instead, most captured a moment in a person’s life and assumed that has always been their drinking pattern. In reality, people change their drinking habits for several reasons.
Eighty-six of the 107 studies misclassified former drinkers and occasional drinkers as being abstinent. One reason this may have biased the results is because former drinkers are more likely to develop health problems over time. It’s possible they cut down or stopped their alcohol consumption when they became sick.
“If you only look at what people are currently drinking, the nondrinkers will always look less healthy than the people who are robust and healthy enough to continue drinking,” Stockwell told Health.
Since most alcohol studies were observational, other factors in people’s lives could have influenced their health outcomes. Some biases in the studies came from not considering age, financial wealth, and sex when analyzing the results. Others failed to consider people’s decisions in life, such as how often they smoked or exercised.
“This study attempted to correct systemic biases that were present in prior research,” Rigved Tadwalkar, MD, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, who was not involved in the study, told Health. “It has provided a more accurate analysis of the relationship between alcohol consumption and mortality.”
Once the study authors identified the biases, they looked at what would happen if you slightly improved these “bad studies.” They used statistical software to remove the bias and added any potential factors that could influence the final outcomes.
The researchers found no association between moderate alcohol drinking and the risk of death from all causes. Deaths from all causes ranged from dying from heart disease to road crashes, and fatal injuries. “The apparent benefits disappear and the little benefits that were there were no longer significant,” Stockwell said.
Drinking one to two drinks actually hurt more than helped with longevity. The risk of premature death went up in women who drank 25 grams (.88 ounces) of alcohol per day and in men who drank 45 grams (1.58 ounces).
The findings debunk the J-curve relationship used to describe alcohol and mortality. The theory is that the lowest point of the curve is those who are moderate drinkers and have the lowest risk of disease and mortality compared to nondrinkers and heavy drinkers. “People are so focused on the bottom of the J because we’ve been told moderate drinkers live longer and are healthier, says Dr. Stockwell. “But there’s no J-shaped curve and no apparent benefits.”
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What This Means for Alcohol Consumption
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends abstaining or drinking in moderation to reduce health risks related to alcohol consumption. The guidelines suggest two drinks or fewer for men and a maximum of one drink for women.
However, other major organizations like the World Health Organization and the World Heart Federation have warned that there’s no safe level of alcohol consumption.
Does this new research mean you have to pour out all your bottles? Not exactly. Experts recommend using this time as a wake-up call to reevaluate your relationship with alcohol.
You’re not doing your body any favors if you’re drinking for health reasons. If that’s the case, you’re better off drinking as little as possible. But if you’re drinking socially like a celebration, then having one or two is likely fine.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you shouldn’t drink alcohol,” Patcher said. “But you should pick the moments you’re going to partake and when it would really enhance their experience.”
The bottom line: if you’re doing to drink, do it for pleasure, not health.