New Study Suggests Moderate Alcohol Consumption May Benefit Middle-Age Women's Health

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Lately, it seems like I’ve been writing about a lot of seemingly negative things related to middle age and menopause. Well, here’s some positive news if you enjoy your nightly “adult beverage.”

    In a study just published on the Public Library of Science (PLoS) website, Dr. Qi Sun, who works in Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition, led a research team that analyzed data from 13,894 Nurses’ Health Study participants who, on average, were 58 years old. The researchers decided to focus on the impact of drinking on mid-life women who lived to be at least 70 years old. According to the Sun, previous research on the general population had found that “High levels of alcohol clearly have detrimental effects on many aspects of human health, but strong, consistent evidence suggests that moderate alcohol consumption may reduce risk of specific diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cognitive compline, in comparison with no alcohol consumption or heavy consumption.”

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    In this new study, researchers found that moderate alcohol consumption of 1-2 drinks a day at midlife was associated with modestly better overall health. Interestingly, the scientists also found that women’s drinking pattern during the week also was associated with health outcomes. For instance, spreading out alcohol consumption throughout the week (as opposed to only drinking on 1-2 days each week) was associated with better overall health.

    This data consisted of food frequency questionnaires that had been completed by study participants from 1980-1984. The participants were considered to be “successfully aging,” which was defined as being free of 11 major chronic diseases (cancer, diabetes, myocardial infarction, coronary angioplasty, congestive heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and having no major cognitive impairment, physical impairment or mental health limitation. Because the participants were primarily white, the researchers noted that they are not able to generalize the study results to other ethnic groups.

    Still, this study is not a green light to regularly drink lots of liquor. The PLoS editors warned, “It is clear that excessive alcohol use – heavy drinking (an average of more than two drinks per day for men or more than one drink per day for women; in the US, a drink is defined as 15 g. of alcohol or, roughly speaking, a can of beer or a small glass of wine) or binge drinking (five or more drinks on a single occasion for men; 4 or more drinks at one time for women) – is harmful.” This level of drinking causes liver damage and may increase the risk for certain types of cancer. In addition, drinking in excess can contribute to depression and violence, as well as interfere with relationships. “However, in contrast to these and other harms associated with excessive alcohol use, moderate alcohol consumption seems to reduce the risk of specific diseases such as heart disease, stroke and cognitive decline (deterioration in learning, reasoning and perception),” the editors wrote. However, they added, “Because this is an observational study, it is possible that the women who drank moderately share other unknown characteristics that are actually responsible for their increased chance of successful aging.”

  • So what’s the take-away from this study? Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health, said on the bottom line is that women who don’t drink shouldn’t start based on this study’s results. However, if you do drink, you should follow two rules:

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    • Stick to the current nutrition and health guidelines of one drink a day, which equals one can or bottle of beer, 1.5 ounces (one shot) of 80-proof distilled spirits, or 5 ounces (which is slightly smaller than a yogurt container) of wine.
    • Be careful of mixers that you use with your liquor since these are typically in the form of refined sugar or an artificial sweetener. Instead, use club soda, seltzer or antioxidant-rich juice.

    Here’s to your good health! Cheers!

Published On: September 09, 2011