Last week a friend eyed my second glass of wine and said, “They’ve just found out alcohol causes cancer, you know.”
Of course I knew. The report that moderate alcohol consumption causes an increase in certain cancers in midlife women was scary and irresistible to American media: One of our sins, it turns out, really is deadly. The Journal of the National Cancer Institute had just published results of a giant Oxford University study of 1.28 million middle-aged women, which found that moderate drinking accounted for about 15 extra cancers per 1,000 women per drink they consumed each day.
In a subsequent editorial, researchers from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, sternly warned: “There is no level of alcohol consumption that can be considered safe.” It was as if they were talking about drinking pesticides, not Pinot Noir.
Many studies show that moderate drinkers enjoy better health than abstainers, are hospitalized less frequently, recover from heart attacks more easily, and are less likely to be disabled or absent from work.
As a middle-aged woman with an enthusiastic, half-bottle-a-day wine habit, this ugly news gave me pause. Could it be true that I’m not safe unless I give up wine altogether?
This isn’t the first time I’ve been told my wine habit isn’t prudent, but usually the warnings come from well-meaning acquaintances who suspect that since they can’t handle a few glasses of wine, neither can I. They try to trick me with questions like, ‘Do you drink when you’re bored?’
But I’m no alcoholic; I’ve have tested the hypothesis, just to be sure, by easily abstaining from wine for an entire boring month. And unlike William Faulkner, given the choice between nothing and Scotch, I’ll drink nothing (the same holds true for Two Buck Chuck and oaked Chardonnays). My only real problem with drinking is that wine makes me fat, and, frankly, I’m a lot happier being a little fat than sticking to seltzer.
Still, the cancer study scared me and was hard to reconcile with earlier studies about the benefits of moderate drinking. Could it really be that one glass of wine is good for you but two guarantees an early death ? Where does that leave one-and-a-half ?
Diving into the research on alcohol, it turns out that the pile of studies touting the benefits of moderate drinking is a lot higher than the pile warning of its risks. A drink or two a day seems to have a stunning effect on reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, for instance--by fully 40 to 60 percent—because it thins the blood and prevents plaque buildup. Given that the chance of dying of cardiovascular disease is much higher for middle-aged women than any of the cancers the Brits studied, I’m starting to relax a little about their results, even without a glass of wine.
David J. Hanson, a professor emeritus of sociology of the State University of New York at Potsdam, who has made studying alcohol his retirement hobby, agreed that the British study was little to worry about. While drinking alcohol—especially combined with smoking—can increase the risk of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, liver, and breast, those cancers are relatively rare, he pointed out. (In the British study, alcohol use actually decreased the risk of thyroid cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and renal-cell cancer.)
“The chances of dying of cardiovascular disease are about ten times as high as breast cancer,” Hanson says. (And some studies have shown that while drinking may increase the risk of breast cancer, even that risk can be counteracted by simply taking folic acid with your cocktail.)
In fact, moderate drinkers overall tend to die later than teetotalers. One Harvard study found death from all causes to be about a quarter lower among men who drank moderately, compared to abstainers (though we all die eventually). The Harvard Nurses’ Health Study found reduced overall mortality among moderate female drinkers, too.
Many studies show that moderate drinkers enjoy better health than abstainers, are hospitalized less frequently, recover from heart attacks more easily, and are less likely to be disabled or absent from work. A French study found moderate drinkers to have a 75 percent lower risk for Alzheimer’s and an 80 percent lower risk for senile dementia; numerous other studies show that moderate drinking can benefit memory, lower chances of dementia, slacken mental decline, and actually improve cognitive skills. Alcohol also improves your levels of good vs. bad cholesterol, and lowers the risk of hypertension.
The effect of alcohol on strokes is a good illustration of why looking at the risks of alcohol for a single disease, as the Brits did, is a problem. Because it thins the blood and reduces plaque, moderate drinking causes an increase in the type of strokes that are caused by bleeding, but a decrease in the type of strokes caused by blockage. But trying to parse those kinds of risks will raise your blood pressure all by itself.
Except that, in this case, it turns out that the strokes caused by blockage are far more prevalent. The American Heart Association says that overall, moderate alcohol consumption is associated with dramatically decreased risk of stroke in men and women, and abstainers’ risk is double that of moderate drinkers.
All of these alcohol studies are based on the idea of moderation; nobody is suggesting that getting drunk is good for your health. (With longevity and alcohol, it’s a U-shaped curve, with the abstainers and the drunks having the highest chances of dying early.) Nor is it so healthy to abstain during the week and guzzle on the weekends; it’s the daily drink that makes your blood thin and happy.
But what is moderate drinking? The answer turns out to be a tad less scientific than political or cultural. When I asked Michael Jacobson, executive director of the finger-wagging Center for Science in the Public Interest, he told me that one drink a day is moderate. And two? “Two is crazy,” he said. “That’s when you get health and all sorts of social and psychological concerns.”
But it defies reason that the difference between one glass and two is so drastic (and frankly, I don’t like being called crazy). The US government generally says one six-ounce glass a day for women is OK, and two for men (women metabolize alcohol differently than men, so it affects us more, even if we’re as large). The French consider three drinks for women, and 4.5 for men to be moderate. In the Netherlands, both genders get 2.75 drinks per day. The UK is slightly higher than the United States, letting women drink 1.75 drinks per day, and men 2.75 before they’re considered over-moderate.
Whatever the cultural definition of moderate, studies find different health results at different levels of drinking—in some cases, most benefits are seen at three drinks per day—and of course everything depends on a person’s individual weight, exercise and eating habits, and ability to tolerate alcohol. The sorry truth is that epidemiological studies rarely offer much good individual advice.
At Oldways, an organization that touts the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet, president Dun Gifford considers two drinks a day—maybe three—to be moderate, if they are consumed with meals. “You have a glass or two, sometimes three, and it eases tension, it makes us more social, and that’s a good thing for the human animal and for society,” he says. “A little bit of buzz doesn’t hurt people if they’re careful about it.”
Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies cross-cultural eating habits, agrees: “Pleasure and relief from stress may be alcohol effects, but they don’t show up directly in health measures.”
Ah, yes, pleasure. That has to factor in, because otherwise you run the risk of becoming like those people who are starving themselves (and not drinking) to test the hypothesis, developed in rat studies, that caloric restriction makes you live longer. The Rat People are thin, and they may be on track to hit 110, but seeing them on 60 Minutes recently, they sure didn’t look very happy, or full of joie de vivre. They looked like they were desperate for a juicy steak and a good Bordeaux. They may live longer--or it may just seem that way.
So I’m sticking to one or two glasses of wine a day--more the French definition, perhaps, than the American-- figuring that “everything in moderation, including moderation” is a more pleasurable motto by which to live than “better safe than sorry.”
And occasionally, I’ll raise a third or fourth glass to poet Charles Baudelaire, and take his advice, too:
“Pour n'être pas les esclaves martyrisés du Temps,
Enivrez-vous sans cesse!
De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise."
Freelance writer Laura Fraser lives in San Francisco. She is the author of the best-selling travel memoir An Italian Affair and the upcoming sequel, All Over the Map.