Is alcohol a toxin? Well, let's let the scientists decide.
There is a fairly widespread scientific consensus that alcohol prolongs life by reducing heart disease — now literally hundreds of studies have found it. But the standard response (my own doctor told me this) is that this is only due to the fact that healthier people have a glass of wine or two at dinner.
One skeptical group of leading researchers, led by Charles Holahan of the University of Texas, proposed this was the case in the current issue of the most prestigious American addiction journal, Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. They found in a 20-year follow-up of 55 to 65-year-old subjects:
Controlling only for age and gender, compared to moderate drinkers, abstainers had a more than 2 times increased mortality risk, heavy drinkers had 70% increased risk, and light drinkers had 23% increased risk. A model controlling for former problem drinking status, existing health problems, and key sociodemographic and social-behavioral factors, as well as for age and gender, substantially reduced the mortality effect for abstainers compared to moderate drinkers. However, even after adjusting for all covariates, abstainers and heavy drinkers continued to show increased mortality risks of 51 and 45%, respectively, compared to moderate drinkers.
Here is how the University press release, titled succinctly, "Adults who drink moderately live longer," described this finding, likewise in an unusually direct and well-crafted manner: "the health benefits of drinking among older adults are intrinsically linked to moderation."
Let me think. I stand a 50 percent lower chance of dying over the next two decades (I'm 64) from having a couple of drinks daily? Hmm, I'll take that. (Incidentally, if you do the math, the study found that heavy drinkers also lived longer than abstainers.) I guess this will resolve the issue.
Not a chance. Americans just don't like or trust alcohol. They'll never believe these results.
At the same time as the Alcoholism journal article was published, Kevin Purdy's post "What Alcohol Actually Does to Your Brain and Body" appeared in Lifehacker, the influential online journal. The article has received a quarter million views (that would probably exceed the views for all my posts). And that's not counting the 100,000s more who read the well-regarded Jonah Lehrer Frontal Cortex column to which Purdy refers.
Purdy writes: "Your body sees alcohol as a poison" and explains why drinkers only seem to live longer. He discusses the Holahan result:
But Jonah Lehrer at Wired points out the not-so-obvious: the link between a longer life and alcohol may not be direct, but it's likely very real. It relates to the long-term benefits of reducing stress, as well as alcohol's role in facilitating get-togethers and acting as a "social lubricant": "it seems likely that drinking in moderation makes it easier for us develop and nurture relationships. And it's these relationships that help keep us alive."
So 100,000s of readers now know that scientifically, it's not alcohol that causes people to live longer, but it is simply being with others and that they are less socially isolated when they drink that prolongs their lives. After all, alcohol is a toxin.
Except, Holahan et al. believed that, and tested for it — and social factors did play a substantial role — remember, controlling only for age and gender, middle-aged abstainers had more than three times (200+%) the risk of dying over 20 years. But the study controlled for exactly the factors Lehrer discusses — sociodemographic factors, former problem drinking status, health factors, and social behavioral factors — and abstainers were left with a fifty percent greater chance of dying.
Lifehacker and Wired readers can now safely feel that if they go to parties or out to dinner with friends and behave socially, but drink only ginger ale and fruit juice, they'll live just as long as those who actually drink alcohol.
They won't. This has been disproven time and again by the best science we can come up with. But the rejection of science, in this case, is presented regularly by leading popular scientific and medical publications and spokespeople — and the idea that alcohol prolongs life will certainly never be spoken in schools. And you will (on average) die sooner if you believe them.
What can we say? We know alcohol's a toxin. We'll never believe alcohol can be good for you. This is America, for chrissake! We're willing to die for our true beliefs!
Follow the author, Stanton Peele, on Twitter.