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A Sobering Look at Alcohol
A number of studies in the past few years have suggested health benefits from drinking small or moderate amounts of alcohol. This can encourage people to look at alcohol almost as if it's medicine. A recent study of alcohol use in Italy paints a much more sobering picture.
Following over 2,000 alcoholics in Tuscany for an average of 10 years, the study found they had a much higher death rate from a host of different causes, including cancer, than the general population.
Death rates from infections, diabetes, diseases of the immunological, nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory, and digestive systems and violent causes all were elevated, as were death rates from many types of cancer. And while women in the study fared better than men, they still fared worse than the rest of the population.
It's hardly news that alcoholism is bad for the health. But few studies have examined these effects in such detail and in such a large population.
The study's take home message about alcohol: less is better. This message isn't just for alcoholics, it's for anyone who drinks. And it's especially important with holiday season approaching, when people tend to drink more than usual.
The study shows in great detail that extreme drinking leads to extreme health problems. And studies of more moderate drinking don't contradict its findings.
Alcohol is estimated to be responsible for 4% of all deaths and 5% of all diseases worldwide. People who've heard that one drink a day might be good for the heart should also remember that just a bit more is known to increase the risk of 60 diseases and 14 cancers.
Two studies published in 2009 offer some very specific findings on the effect of more moderate drinking on health.
The Zutphen Study looked at the effects of alcohol consumption on over 1,000 men in a small town in the Netherlands for 40 years. It found that men who drank sparingly had a longer life expectancy than those who didn't drink at all. Wine worked best; men who drank an average of 0.7 ounces of wine daily lived about 2.5 years longer than those who drank beer or liquor and 5 years longer than non-drinkers.
Taking this study to heart and trying to drink 0.7 ounces of wine daily, the first step would be finding a glass small enough to allow you to do so.
In contrast, the aptly named Million Women Study looked at the effect of drinking on cancer in over one million women in the UK. It found that any alcohol consumption at all increased their cancer risk over the next seven years. The more alcohol they drank, the higher their cancer risk.
On average, the women in the study had a single drink per day.
It's not that studies showing health benefits from small amounts of alcohol are wrong; it's just that that's not how most people do drink. And the way many people drink damages their health. The Italian study, while it looks at extreme drinking, is a reminder of this.
An article on the Italian study was published online by Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research November 15, 2011 and will also appear in the February 2012 print edition of the journal.
November 28, 2011