While too much alcohol can lead to addiction and other problems, decades of research have linked low and moderate drinking to health benefits, from cardiac fitness to better exercise.
Let’s revisit some of the most common positive effects attributed to alcohol over the years and see if they are still backed by hard data.
A 1997 study showed no positive or negative cognitive effects from drinking alcohol. As early as 2011, however, long-term studies showed that moderate social drinking could be associated with lower dementia rates and cognitive decline.
A 2019 study showed higher levels of brain function in people who reported low to moderate drinking habits. With over two decades of data from nearly 20,000 respondents, the researchers found that people who drank little to moderate amounts of alcohol had better mental status, better word recall, and better vocabulary than nondrinkers.
However, a 2018 study in France found that alcohol use disorders are strongly linked to several forms of dementia. Another 2019 study showed benefits from frequent, low-volume drinking, but also found evidence that heavy drinking – even if done infrequently – was linked to high rates of dementia.
Taken together, there seems to be a fine line between benefit and harm.
Research has shown that a little alcohol can be a boon to your cardiovascular system. But, as with cognitive health, the benefits can quickly turn into risks without moderation. In 2018, the Mayo Clinic published a study that clearly shows this pattern: people who drank little alcohol had lower rates of coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke, and even death. Higher values increased the risk of cardiovascular problems.
The information is tarnished by a 2016 meta-review that showed negative results even for light drinkers. Lower alcohol consumption may benefit some cardiovascular diseases such as coronary artery disease, but has been linked to an increase in other conditions such as stroke. High consumption was associated with great risks and no benefits.
Antioxidants are known to have a number of benefits such as improving cardiovascular health, lowering cancer risk, and even protecting against colds. Research into the health effects of alcohol, which often contains antioxidants, goes back at least 25 years.
These days, it’s usually wine that is specifically hailed for beneficial health effects – and for good reason, as it’s high in antioxidants and, according to a 2018 study, can be linked to both lower cancer risk and longer lifespan. A 1993 study in the American Journal of Public Health showed that people who consumed moderate amounts of alcohol were less likely to catch a cold. A 2002 report by Spanish scientists found a significant chance of reducing cold symptoms in subjects who habitually drank wine.
Studies from 2005 and 2009 showed lower rates of type 2 diabetes in subjects who consumed small or moderate amounts of alcohol. Another study from 2017 showed similar results.
Recent research not only continues to show that light to moderate drinking limits the risk of type 2 diabetes, but also explains why. A 2019 meta-analysis split cardiovascular benefits into specific effects – drinkers had lower triglyceride and insulin levels, and better metabolic function. These effects lead to lower risk factors for diabetes.
How Much Drinking is Easy? In this case, it was 20 grams or less of alcohol per day. That’s about a can and a half of beer, a shot of vodka, or a large glass of wine.
A 2006 study by the Catholic University of Campobasso in Italy suggests that small amounts of alcohol consumed over a long period of time, like a can of beer or a glass of wine with dinner, may be associated with longer lifespan. This is supported by other studies, such as those mentioned in the Antioxidant and Heart Health sections above.
However, there is also evidence that alcohol consumption in general carries the risk of side effects. A 2016 study showed that high alcohol consumption was linked to higher cancer and death rates. The risks were lower for light or infrequent drinkers, but still worse than for nondrinkers.
The take away
According to many recent studies, alcohol can offer health benefits when consumed in moderation. However, too much alcohol carries a variety of risks. Your doctor can offer you personal advice. Therefore, get a professional opinion before consuming alcohol to reap the benefits.
Please keep in mind that a variety of resources are available if you or someone you know has an alcohol or other drug addiction problem.
Sean Marsala is a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based health journalist. He loves technology, usually reads, surfs the internet, and explores virtual worlds.