Benefits of Moderate Drinking Questioned

A glass of wine a day keeps the cardiologist away. At least that seems to be the point of numerous studies over the past 3 decades that have found a few alcoholic drinks per day can be beneficial. Now there's reason to believe that many of these studies are flawed.

The bulk of the 54 clinical studies that tested the effect of moderate drinking-- defined as two to four drinks per day--found that drinkers had a lower risk of death from heart disease and virtually every other cause than do people who don't drink. But some alcohol researchers were concerned that participants who had recently quit drinking were skewing the results by being lumped in with the abstainers. Because former drinkers often stopped drinking due to health problems or age, counting them as nondrinkers could bring down the average health of that group, making the drinkers appear relatively healthier.

So a team led by sociologist Kaye Fillmore of the University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing took a second look at the studies. The researchers found that only seven of the 54 studies excluded former drinkers. And none of those seven found a difference in risk of death for moderate drinkers and abstainers. The 47 studies that included former drinkers in their abstainer group concluded that moderate drinkers had a lower risk of death in general and from heart disease specifically.

The team took their analysis one step further by introducing the former drinker flaw into the seven studies that had excluded former drinkers from the abstainers group. When the former drinkers were included, the seven studies came to the same conclusion as the other 47: Moderate drinkers had a better outcome than nondrinkers did. The results are published online today in the journal Addiction Research and Theory.

"It appears to be a good study," says John Standridge, an alcohol addiction researcher at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, Chattanooga. But he notes that it's difficult to draw solid conclusions when so many types of studies are lumped together. And there is a lot of evidence for molecular mechanisms behind the benefits of drinking that increase HDL, or good cholesterol, and decrease blood clotting, Standridge says. "Bottom line is, there's no doubt in my mind that moderate alcohol consumption is beneficial."

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