More than a few baby boomers imbibed too much during their misspent youth, leaving them with a lifelong apprehension of what can come from drinking alcohol.
But a raft of medical studies over the past generation shows that alcohol has proven health benefits, provided you drink in moderation — one or two drinks a day, three or four days a week. Many doctors say the findings are no longer in doubt, even if some boomers with long memories continue to be skeptical.
“There’s no question that people who drink moderately have lower rates of heart attacks, lower rates of diabetes, and live longer,” said Dr. Eric Rimm, associate professor in the departments of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. “If you ask most cardiologists, they would say drinking in moderation is beneficial.”
Even more interesting: People who only drink occasionally, or on weekends, aren’t likely to enjoy the same health benefits as those who drink every other day, Rimm suggested. Alcohol reduces the risk of blood clotting in the 24 hours after drinking, for example, but not in the days after. Other benefits, such as a rise in good cholesterol, making it easier to process glucose, are more likely to extend throughout the week.
While the research shows health advantages of both beer and wine — without, for the most part, distinguishing between them — epidemiologists and cardiovascular specialists say there is still much to know about the specific effects of each beverage. Many are calling for a five-year randomized clinical trial to be sponsored by the National Institutes of Health that would focus, among other things, on how drinking beer affects the body, everything from bone density to how food is metabolized compared with drinking wine.
“The evidence now is there’s no huge difference in beverage choice,” Rimm said. “The pattern of drinking is much more important than the choice of beverage. But it would be interesting to do a long-term clinical trial.”
Until such a trial is completed, specialists are left with the results of previous studies, including some lesser-known ones that focused on benefits from alcohol that go beyond heart health.
In one such study, Dr. Katherine L. Tucker, now a professor of nutritional epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, working with researchers in the United States and Europe, found both beer and wine consumption protected bone mineral density in men and women.
“Moderate alcohol consumption is good for the heart,” Tucker said. “But it’s also reliably associated with protecting the bones, which start to get more porous as we age. And that’s even less well known. If you drink, one or two drinks a day definitely improves your bones.”
Tucker is quick to add, however that such a regimen must be carefully balanced against drinking’s risks.
Topping the list is the risk of drinking too much, which can lead to alcoholism and a variety of accompanying ills ranging from addiction to liver damage. People with a family history of alcohol abuse might be smarter to avoid the one or two drinks a day altogether.
Drinking alcohol has also been shown to slightly increase the risk of breast cancer in women, another reason to think twice, Tucker said.
“It’s good for you in small doses,” she said. “That’s always the caveat.”
Much research has shown that red wine has particular health benefits, including antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. While white wine also has been shown to have benefits, “If you’re going to choose based on health, red wine is the best choice to make,” Tucker said.
Resveratrol, a phytonutrient found in red wine, especially helps to protect the cardiovascular system and guard against osteoporosis, a condition leading to fragility of the bones in both sexes, but particularly among postmenopausal women.
“Osteoporosis is very common,” Tucker warned. “A lot of older people die after hip fractures because of immobility. A lot of people don’t walk again without a walker. They become permanently disabled.”
When it comes to beer, researchers pointing to health benefits have focused on a mineral called silicon, which contributes to the strengthening of bones. Darker, earthier beers may have higher levels of silicon. Bone protection for beer drinkers comes partly from the silicon and partly from the alcohol, Tucker suggested.
“Both the wine and beer are protective of bones in both men and women,” she said. “But men tend to drink more beer and women more wine. They both have their benefits in different ways.”
The health benefits of beer and wine are better understood partly because people tend to keep good track of their alcohol intake compared to how many carrots or how much rib roast they consume, according to Harvard’s Rimm.
Despite the arguments for beer or wine, Rimm said the known health benefits are likely to occur regardless of the type of alcohol drunk. Specifically, he said, a 5-ounce glass of wine, a 12-ounce mug of beer, and a single shot of 80-proof vodka or gin are likely to yield the same benefits.
These benefits can be obscured, he said, because of the way alcohol is consumed in the United States. While many Germans drink beer in moderation with meals, he said, too many Americans drink it episodically — and to excess — while watching football or baseball.
“Someone might say, ‘I’m going to live it up and drink a six-pack on Friday night when the Red Sox are playing and not drink the rest of the week,’ ” Rimm said. “You won’t get the same benefit.”
Glug or gag: Weighing the pros and cons of alcohol
Benefits of one or two drinks
- Reduces risk of blood clotting.
- Boosts good cholesterol levels.
- Aids body in processing glucose.
- Protects bone mineral density.
Risks of one or two drinks
- Can lead to binge drinking.
- Can lead to alcoholism.
- Increases risk of breast cancer in women.
- Increases risk of liver damage.