Is Alcohol an Anti-Aging Drug?

The consumption of alcohol has been shown, over and over again, to be associated with substantially lower death rates, especially from heart disease. Since aging is the biggest risk factor for the main chronic diseases of civilization, and alcohol lowers death rates, is alcohol an anti-aging drug?

Alcohol and lower death rates

There are grounds for skepticism in the association between alcohol and lower death rates. (I’ve been one of the skeptics.) For instance, people who have quit drinking, and are therefore non-drinkers, may have quit either because they were alcoholics or had other health problems, therefore their higher death rates would not entirely be due to non-drinking. Some studies have tried to get around this limitation by comparing drinkers only to lifelong teetotalers.

There are also confounders, such as IQ and social status. Contrary to what might be assumed, more intelligent people and those with higher socioeconomic status drink more, and IQ and SES are also associated with better health and longer life. Researchers can statistically adjust for these factors, but there may be others that they don’t see. There are ways of getting around this limitation too, as we’ll see.

In Spanish men, alcohol consumption was associated with much lower death rates from heart disease. What’s interesting here is that it’s not just moderate drinkers who have lower death rates from heart disease, hazard ratio 0.49 indicating less than half the risk. But high and very high consumers also had lower risk, at 0.46 and 0.50 respectively. (As there are scores or hundreds of similar studies on alcohol and death rates, I will cite merely this one.)

To get around the IQ and socioeconomic status effects, it helps to look at some particular group of people, and that’s what a study of British doctors did. As confirmation of the ex-drinker hypothesis, ex-drinkers had higher mortality than never-drinkers or current drinkers. But even when the drinking doctors were compared to the never-drinking doctors, they had 28% lower death rates from heart disease, 31% lower from respiratory disease, and 12% lower death rates overall.

It’s possible that IQ and social status effects are not completely eliminated in this study. Even among doctors, some are smarter and make more money than others. But it would seem to considerably narrow the IQ range under consideration, from say 110 to 150, instead of 75 to 150 in the entire population. The authors of this study conclude:

Although some of the apparently protective effect of alcohol against disease is artefactual, some of it is real.

In other words, studies like these show a mixture of factors, such as IQ, status, previous health, and so on, but one of the factors is that alcohol decreases death rates.

Why alcohol lowers death rates

Lots of theories have been floated as to why alcohol might lower death rates, especially from heart disease. But the following one really grabbed my attention. First, we need to look at one of the most prominent ideas in aging research: growth vs longevity.

Put bluntly, anything that promotes growth – after the age of maturity or reproductive onset – also promotes aging.

More mechanistically, anything that causes constitutive activation of mTOR (the mammalian target of rapamycin) promotes aging.

Food, obesity, anabolic steroids, growth hormone: all promote mTOR and thus promote aging.

Food restriction, resveratrol, rapamycin, metformin: all decrease mTOR activation, and thus promote longer life.

Add alcohol to the list of mTOR deactivators.

Alcohol mechanistically deactivates mTOR. These effects were seen in cultures and animals at a concentration of about 0.1% ethanol, which just barely above the legal driving limit for blood alcohol. In other words, this effect could be very real in real-life, actual drinkers, not just in a laboratory.

This effect might wholly explain lower death rates in drinkers. There are reasons to think that less mTOR activation will decrease both heart disease and cancer rates. While drinkers have higher risks of certain cancers, especially of the esophagus, which alcohol directly contacts, they may have lower risks of other forms of cancer, for instance non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

mTOR also regulates insulin sensitivity, so there’s another means by which alcohol could function as an anti-aging drug.

The mTOR effect is also consistent with alcohol inhibiting muscle growth. In other words, drinking could cut your gains. It seems doubtful that this has much of an effect in those who train hard and drink moderately, but it does seem to account for muscle wasting in alcoholics.

Is alcohol an anti-aging drug?

Despite my skepticism about the association between alcohol and better health, a lot of this research is compelling in my opinion. The mechanistic link with mTOR, which so tightly regulates aging, is another piece of evidence, and these effects seem to be compatible with the amount of alcohol drunk by real-world, moderate drinkers.

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Leave a Comment:

Derek Leonard says March 7, 2017

Excellent overview! I might have to change the part in my book; Learning To Love Red to add some of this into the health section.

I added that “drinking alcohol may increase your risk for certain cancers” and then said; “not drinking at all may be the healthiest thing you can do”, but perhaps not.

Luckily I was going to make a second edition with further information on the different wine varieties, so I’ll be sure to do add this in.

Would you mind if I credited this page in the book P.D.?

    P. D. Mangan says March 7, 2017

    Hi Derek – glad you liked it. I wouldn’t mind at all – credit away!

      Derek Leonard says March 7, 2017

      Superb! Will do for sure.

James says March 7, 2017

Another revelation! I was also initially dismissive when you started tweeting on this but I’m coming around to the idea now. Suppression of mTOR seems key. Moderation is also key: a glass every day with occasional breaks or every other day seems the right dose.

Usually when I buy a bottle I finish the bottle same day, might do the same the next day, and then will go without wine for days… but 1/3rd bottle a day with occasional breaks probably more optimal.

And red wine, of course, is associated with those infamous long-lived mediterraneans … and red wine, of course, reduces or blocks absorption of iron when concurrently consumed.

Is Alcohol an Anti-Aging Drug? says March 7, 2017

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bigmyc says March 8, 2017

Obviously, we can’t ignore research and results like we see in this post on account of the fact that they are highly confusing but….they are highly confusing.

If hormesis is involved, it makes a little sense. Specifically, the regulation of mTOR is also straightforward but what of the iron absorbing effects of alcohol, let alone if one chronically drinks at the levels that the studies say is beneficial?

Furthermore, these studies might indicate that muscle growth is something to avoid unless it’s to spare muscle in light of its eventual decay. Perhaps this indicates a sort of preferable “Goldilocks Zone” in muscle body building. It is well known, I believe, that the health status of elderly people is highly correlated with their level of muscle development and thus, their “organ reserve.” This is contradictory to the subject of your post. Perhaps its more about the lack of muscle loss more so than it is muscle gain….

Finally, is alcohol not pro-inflammatory? At what point do the benefits of acute stress give way to the detriment of chronic stress?

The answers are out there.

    P. D. Mangan says March 8, 2017

    I’m not confused.

      bigmyc says March 9, 2017

      I didn’t say that you were confused. What I said was tantamount to myself being confused. Since you are more certain of the implications of alcohol as an anti- senescence measure, would you care to reconcile the disparate and divergent consequences of what alcohol is known to contribute toward?

        P. D. Mangan says March 9, 2017

        It’s pretty simple, actually, anyway it is as I see it. Like any drug, alcohol has a range of effects, some desirable, some not so desirable. These also depend on the dose. It’s addictive, for example, can cause weight gain, accidents, death from overdose, etc. On the other side, moderate use is associated with lower death rates. It’s like anything: acetaminophen kills your pain, larger doses make you need a liver transplant. Metformin associates with less cancer and longer life, also causes diarrhea and stomach upset and some other things.

          bigmyc says March 9, 2017

          The principle can be applied to elements of human consumption that are vital to our existence. Vitamin D is crucial but too much is toxic. The sun can cause cancer but it’s effect upon human health and well being in moderate doses is undeniable. etc.

          But alcohol is different. Besides, you even cited a study where the participants weren’t just drinking “moderately,” whatever that means anymore. I suppose caffeine is a decent comparison whereas, it isn’t essential but with caffeine, moderate amounts appear to be neuro-protective, up regulate fat burning and confers an overall positive outlook, but unwise doses can create “jitters” and crash the adrenals. But in my impression, alcohol is known to be a straight poison…so much, that it is relatively easy to over dose. It’s closer to cyanide in that respect than caffeine. It’s metabolites are terrible for the human physique at any stage. The only reason alcohol has been consumed so widely is because of the implications of its euphoric effects. You would consume metformin precisely for its direct health impact. Same with aspirin. The effects of alcohol are, in my estimation, a “luxury.” Most of the substances that you cited either had minor negative side effects or else their negative side effects were a product of long term use…alcohol can be misused to a deadly level in a single evening (or afternoon/day).

          I doubt that the immoderate drinkers in some of the studies are keeping their iron absorption to negligible levels…or their cardio vascular health. Or their liver. Or their cognitive capacity (with the constant, if not low level, metabolite detox that is perpetual.) etc. I can buy the positive effects, as I mentioned in my initial post but what I am getting at is that the negative aspects of what we know that alcohol is capable of should seemingly trump any longevity pathway. If anything, seems like a break even situation.


          bigmyc says March 22, 2017

          And then there’s this I just happened to come across;

Brandon says March 30, 2017

Dennis, I saw this provocative article claiming “Drinking two or more alcoholic drinks every day cuts 23 years off a life” and while I don’t really believe it, I’ve been kinda freaked out by it ever since. Just thought I would send it your way to see what you think of it.

    P. D. Mangan says March 30, 2017

    Hey Brandon, the article is ridiculous. Whatever downsides alcohol has, and it does have them, moderate drinking is robustly associated with better health and longer life.

      bigmyc says March 31, 2017

      It’s worth cautioning vs. the “pick and choose” approach to empirical data. If you like to imbibe, great. I don’t do so nearly as much as I used to for a variety of reasons but let’s be real about the overall health implications of it. We’ve all heard that a few drinks are “good” for the physiology. We’ve all heard that drinking isn’t so recommended on a consistent basis, save for spirits like red wine….

      Here’s a new study to consider;

      “New epidemiologic research confirms the potential harmful cardiovascular effects of heavy episodic alcohol use and does not support the previous observation that low-moderate alcohol use protects against stroke. Alcohol consumption also appears to have a continuous positive relationship with the risk of atrial fibrillation. In addition, Mendelian randomization analyses suggest that alcohol may have a direct causal role in adverse cardiovascular effects. Recent studies have confirmed that heavy alcohol use (>14 drinks per week in women and >21 drinks per week in men) and heavy episodic drinking are associated with an increased risk of mortality.”

        P. D. Mangan says March 31, 2017

        >21 drinks a week is over 3 a day. Heavy drinking, which I discussed in another article.

          bigmyc says June 15, 2017

          But then there is this more recent study;

          From the conclusion;
          “Higher alcohol consumption over the 30 year follow-up was associated with increased odds of hippocampal atrophy in a dose dependent fashion. While those consuming over 30 units a week were at the highest risk compared with abstainers (odds ratio 5.8, 95% confidence interval 1.8 to 18.6; P≤0.001), even those drinking moderately (14-21 units/week) had three times the odds of right sided hippocampal atrophy (3.4, 1.4 to 8.1; P=0.007). There was no protective effect of light drinking (1-<7 units/week) over abstinence. "

Bill says April 4, 2017

Dr Mercola in a youtube discusses how ethanol can be of benefit in small doses in the diet

Look at minute 38-40

JM says May 14, 2017

Dennis, have you checked out some of the latest research on the confound between wealth and health? Apparently, when they controlled for wealth the ostensible health benefits vanished.
If true, this is disappointing news, but c’est la vie. It would be great to get your thoughts on this. In your opinion is there still a plausible benefit, or is this a fatal blow to the theory?

Some of the coverage on the topic:

    P. D. Mangan says May 14, 2017

    Hi JM, I covered this aspect of alcohol in detail in my new book (soon to be released). There’s definitely confounding in alcohol use with wealth and socioeconomic status, but IMO that doesn’t explain all of the association between alcohol and lower mortality. For example, among British male physicians, drinkers lived longer, and that association negates much of the effect of SES. Also, in lab animals, alcohol has healthy effects, such as mTOR inhibition.

      JM says May 14, 2017

      That’s interesting, thank you. Looking forward to reading the book.

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