The Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2011.
A Toast to Your Health
Warning: Alcohol may increase your life expectancy and reduce dementia
The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans on Monday. There weren't many surprises in its recommendations to reduce fat and salt, eat whole grains, and cut the overall amount we eat.
But here's one thing that might surprise you. Chapter Three, titled "Foods and Food Components to Reduce," deals with alcohol. The Guidelines, created by America's leading health researchers, state: "Alcohol consumption may have beneficial effects when consumed in moderation (up to two drinks daily). Strong evidence from observational studies has shown that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Moderate alcohol consumption also is associated with reduced risk of all-cause mortality among middle-aged and older adults and may help to keep cognitive function intact with age."
What was that again?
Moderate alcohol consumption is associated with reduced risk of all-cause mortality and may help to keep cognitive function intact with age? You mean, alcohol is associated with living and remaining mentally alert longer?
Isn't this news to most Americans? The Guidelines rush to list all the detriments of excessive drinking. They also say no one should begin drinking moderately for their health, since alcohol has so many negative effects.
But aren't most "middle-aged and older" Americans drinking too little in terms of these Guidelines? The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2009) says that only 55% of 50-year-olds have had a drink in the past month. Half of people 60-64 and just 40% of those 65 and older (a group in which I proudly count myself) have done so.
These percentages surely drop drastically when considering daily drinking. In any case, since the figure for "middle-aged and older" Americans who drink even as much as once a month hovers around a half, aren't too few Americans benefitting from alcohol?
Right about here we get into a technical discussion about the meaning of "associated with." Critics rush in to claim that drinkers appear to be healthier (a) because they have otherwise healthier habits, (b) alcoholics and those in poor health have been forced to quit drinking.
Let me point out (a) this isn't true and (b) it doesn't matter.
Researchers at the Harvard Health Professionals study team, which has tracked the health of doctors and nurses for decades, have consistently found that the health benefits associated with moderate drinking are real. They measure all forms of health behavior in addition to drinking (e.g., smoking, diet, weight, exercise, concurrent health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease) and have uniformly found the benefits of alcohol to persist within each category.
But let's accept the criticism at face value — that drinkers live longer and maintain their cognitive functioning better because of other aspects of their health and lifestyles.
Doesn't that put drinking in a different context? Shouldn't that make health professionals consider how drinking seems to fit so well into healthy lifestyles?
If we did change our thinking in this direction, it would create a major shift in health policy. Health educators would have to explain that drinking can be good for you; advertisers could make health claims.
And — returning to the Guidelines — does the Agriculture Department want to reconsider whether alcohol belongs among things we need to reduce? How about putting it in a chapter on smarter use of things we put in our bodies — which is what, after all, the Guidelines are all about.
Mr. Peele is a psychologist, attorney and creator of the Life Process Program for addiction recovery. His most recent book is "Addiction-Proof Your Child" (Crown, 2007).