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The Upside of Alcohol

New research links moderate drinking with good health among young American adults, with a stronger effect for women.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

The debate over whether moderate drinking is good for your health has been raging since at least Prohibition. In 1926 — a time when drinking anything stronger than soda was unlawful in the United States — Raymond Pearl published his seminal findings on the subject. Here’s how he and a colleague summed them up in Nature magazine:

Moderate steady drinkers exhibited somewhat lower rates of mortality and greater expectation of life than did abstainers. This superiority is not great in the male moderate drinker, and may not be significant statistically.

Countless studies have been published over subsequent decades, either supporting or questioning those findings. Now, after 90 years of debate, a new study of young American adults suggests Pearl was precisely right.

“Our analysis generally confirm the positive association between moderate drinking and health,” University of Miami researchers Bisma Ali Sayed and Michael French report in the journal Social Science and Medicine. “But the effects differ between men and women.”

Specifically, they report a reasonably robust relationship between moderate drinking and good health in young females, but more mixed results for young males.

The researchers used data from Wave IV of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which featured 7,207 men and 8,275 women between the ages of 24 and 32. All were first interviewed in 1994 or 1995, and followed over the years.

Participants rated their overall health from one (poor) to five (excellent). They also provided “detailed measures of alcohol use,” which allowed the researchers to place them in one of six categories: lifetime abstainers, former drinkers, infrequent drinkers, light drinkers, moderate drinkers, and heavy drinkers.

You are officially allowed to say “I’m drinking because it’s good for my health” with a straight face.

Women in the “heavy drinker” category were those who reported consuming an average of more than seven drinks per week over the previous year. For men, the cutoff was more than 14 drinks per week.

Distinguishing “former drinker” from lifetime abstainers was important to reduce the possibility of “abstainer bias,” an issue that called into question some earlier studies. People who have stopped drinking need to be placed in their own separate category, since they may have given up alcohol for health reasons.

After taking into account a number of variables that could impact drinking behavior, including age, race, education, income, and marital status, the researchers found “infrequent drinkers and heavy drinkers have significantly lower self-rated health than their moderate drinking peers.”

That’s right: At least by their own assessment, moderate drinkers were the healthiest of all the categories. But that overall finding masks some significant gender differences.

“Among women, moderate drinkers display better health status than former drinkers, infrequent drinkers, and light drinkers,” the researchers write. In contrast, males who drink moderately report better health than infrequent drinkers and heavy drinkers only.

Sayed and French aren’t sure why moderate drinking apparently has a weaker protective effect on males. But they note that men and women tend to consume different alcoholic drinks, and point out that they may have “different motivations and expectations associated with drinking.”

The researchers surmise that, for women more than for men, “alcohol consumption may help to establish and maintain social bonds, while also serving to relieve stress. Moderate drinking in this context may have an overall positive impact on physical and mental health.”

So it’s possible that the context in which alcohol is consumed may be more important than we realized. Overall, however, “these findings suggest that the health benefits of moderate drinking may be present for even younger adults.”

In other words, you are officially allowed to say “I’m drinking because it’s good for my health” with a straight face.

You’re welcome.