If your drinking companions are French, you toast each other with “À votre santé !” With Russians, it’s “Za zdorovje!” For Spanish-speakers, “Salud!” In Hebrew, “L’chaim!”
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that when drinkers almost anywhere clink glasses, they are apt to invoke good health or long life. More likely, it reflects a truth humankind discovered long ago: Drinking alcohol can be a source of not only short-term enjoyment, but of long-term health benefits too.
That may ring heretical at a time when headlines routinely sound alarms about the dangers of alcohol abuse. A search of the phrase “binge drinking” in Google News turns up nearly 7,000 recent articles. Many focus on the connection between drunkenness and campus sexual assault; others dwell on the serious consequences of drinking to excess, from alcohol poisoning to liver disease.
No question about it: Binge drinking is unsafe and unhealthy. But moderate drinking can be just what the doctor ordered.
A remarkable amount of research suggests that having one or two alcoholic drinks a day lowers most people’s risk of being stricken with heart disease, ischemic stroke, and even dementia. One major study published in 2010 by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, for example, concluded that “in nine nationally representative samples of US adults, light and moderate alcohol consumption were inversely associated with CVD [cardiovascular disease] mortality, even when compared with lifetime abstainers.” Harvard’s School of Public Health notes on its nutrition website: “For most moderate drinkers, alcohol has overall health benefits.” In more than 100 long-term studies, many of which monitored their subjects’ health for 10 years or longer, researchers consistently documented a significant inverse association between moderate drinking and death from many forms of heart disease.
And not just heart disease. Numerous studies bear out the finding that moderate drinkers tend to live longer than both teetotalers and heavy drinkers. According to sociologist David Hanson of the State University of New York at Potsdam, even the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism — an organization plainly not inclined to downplay the potential dangers of liquor — has found that “the lowest death rate from all causes occurs at the level of one to two drinks each day.”
Federal law has required a health-warning label on alcoholic beverages since 1988. Yet even the government’s own dietary guidelines, regularly revised by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, acknowledge that adult beverages confer “beneficial effects when consumed in moderation.” Fewer heart attacks, better cholesterol levels, reduced hospitalization rates, less weight gain, lower risk of dementia and cognitive decline — all these life-saving or life-enhancing advantages, the data suggest, are likelier to be found among men and women who down a daily drink or two than among those who never drink at all.
“The evidence that abstinence from alcohol is a cause of heart disease and early death is irrefutable,” writes addiction and public-health specialist Stanton Peele, “yet this is almost unmentionable in the United States.” Accompanying Peele’s essay at Substance.com is a picture of a classic Guinness beer ad proclaiming: “Guinness Is Good For You.” It turns out that having a beer — or a glass of wine, or a vodka tonic, or a bourbon on the rocks — really is good for most people.
Yet brewers, distillers, and other alcoholic beverage manufacturers aren’t allowed to say so on their bottles. General Mills can tout the “heart-healthy” qualities of Cheerios on every cereal box; StarKist can do the same on cans of tuna. But Americans apparently can’t be trusted with accurate information about the gains associated with moderate imbibing. The public health establishment plays down the benefits of drinking in moderation, no doubt for fear of sending any kind of encouragement to those who’ll be tempted to drink to excess.
Regulators can be obsessive about stamping out any hint that alcoholic beverages might be good for you. The Treasury Department bureaucrat charged with approving beer labels, reported The Daily Beast last month, rejected a King of Hearts beer, on the grounds that its logo depicting a playing card “implied that the beer would have a health benefit.” Similarly, “he rejected an Adnams Broadside beer, which touted itself as a ‘heart-warming ale,’ because this supposedly involved a medical claim.”
And what if it were? Alcohol has been known for centuries as “aqua vitae.” That’s Latin for “water of life,” and it could hardly be more aptly named.Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.