Do Heavy Drinkers Really Outlive Non-Drinkers?

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Shopping basket red wine bottles

TIME recently reported on a new study that suggests heavy drinkers outlive non-drinkers.  However, as usual with these studies, it's not as cut and dry as the title suggests.

This latest study is a bit very misleading, especially for women.   First, it had less than 2,000 participants.  Second, only 37% of the participants were women (that's just a few hundred women).  Considering the fact that there have been other studies on the harmful effects of alcohol on women, and that these studies have had over a million women participants, I'm not inclined to take this latest study very seriously.  It certainly wouldn't be advised that a woman start drinking or increase her drinking based on this study.

Here are a few facts about the dangerous effects that alcohol (even in small amounts) can have on women:

From About.com -- Alcohol Effects and Women

Women have higher risk than men for certain serious medical consequences of alcohol use, including liver, brain and heart damage, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

From WebMD -- Alcohol Linked to Cancer in Women

Women who drink as little as one alcoholic beverage a day -- be it beer, wine, or hard liquor -- have an increased cancer risk, a study shows. Researchers followed more than 1.2 million middle-aged women for an average of seven years. The women were participants in the ongoing Million Women Study in the U.K.

Those who drank alcohol consumed on average one drink a day. These women had an increased cancer risk with increasing alcohol intake, especially for cancers of the breast, liver, rectum, mouth, throat, and esophagus.

There was one aspect of this TIME article that I found to be somewhat plausible:

But why would abstaining from alcohol lead to a shorter life? It's true that those who abstain from alcohol tend to be from lower socioeconomic classes, since drinking can be expensive. And people of lower socioeconomic status have more life stressors — job and child-care worries that might not only keep them from the bottle but also cause stress-related illnesses over long periods.

Now that actually makes some sense.  In addition, this lower income group would also have less access to healthcare and costly medications.  However, it still doesn't prove that adding alcohol to the mix would have any benefit at all, and I imagine it would be quite the opposite.

I do think that there is something to be said about the "social" aspect of drinking.  I don't believe the benefits are coming from the actual alcohol as much as the physical and mental health benefits of being socially active.

It's also important to point out that many people who are non-drinkers are abstaining from alcohol for medical reasons (and/or medication contraindications).  I know this from personal experience.  I don't drink because I don't like the way it makes me feel.  But what I usually don't mention is that the unpleasant way alcohol makes me feel is directly related to a medical condition of mine.  I'm sure that I'm not the only one out there sugar-coating the reasons they choose not to drink (and I don't believe any participants in this recent study were even asked why they choose not to drink).  Knowing the reasons non-drinkers don't drink could help explain the strange results of this study.

Obviously, I'm not a researcher, but I am inclined to believe that heavy drinking is NOT the key to a longer life.  And I especially hope that women will avoid giving this study any credence at all.  There are a million things we can do to improve our overall health and well-being (that don't involve drinking more alcohol and putting ourselves at an increased risk for serious medical conditions).

What do you think about this latest study on drinking and mortality?  Did it put a smile on your face thinking you now had an excuse to drink even more?  Or were you worried the study was sending the wrong message?  You know what I think, I would love to know what you think in comments.

Contributing Editor Catherine Morgan
Also at Catherine-Morgan.com

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