Drinking alcohol is healthy – or is it?

The evidence for alcohol and health

At Pacific Standard, a doctor, Stanton Peele, writes, The Truth We Won’t Admit: Drinking Is Healthy. He cites a number of studies that show greatly decreased mortality is associated with drinking alcohol. He even goes beyond what articles of this kind usually say, and that is that you can drink quite a lot and still get health benefits. Most such studies and articles come with the caveat that more than one or two drinks a day for a man, or just one for a woman, reduces health benefits, but Peele shows that even a man who has four drinks a day still has a lower mortality than a complete abstainer.

He also shows that another caveat is not relevant. This one is that the group of teetotalers will include both those who are too ill to drink as well as former alcoholics, and since they are likely to die younger, this skews the mortality statistics in favor of drinkers. But a study of only healthy people that controlled for things like smoking and BMI still found that drinkers had an advantage.

Peele also asserts that the legacy of the temperance movement and America’s love-hate attitude to alcohol prevents doctors and health authorities from recommending drinking alcohol as a means to better health, and I think he may have a point.

Drinking is not the causative factor of longer life

There’s only one problem: all the studies he cites are associational only. In other words, people who drink alcohol live longer, but it is far from being proven that alcohol is the cause of longer life. What is needed is a randomized controlled trial in which one group is counseled to drink, the other to abstain, and then see what happens. As far as I can tell, such a study has not been done.

Higher intelligence is robustly associated with better health

The biggest confounder in these studies is that intelligent people drink more alcohol, and IQ is robustly associated with longer life and better health. As the association between drinking and intelligence is often thought counter-intuitive by many people, I reproduce one of the graphs from Kanazawa:

So, the more intelligent people are, the longer they live, and the more they drink, but alcohol seems quite unlikely, in my view, to be the cause of longer life.

Where does that leave us?

I think that one thing we can say about alcohol is that it’s not all bad, it doesn’t harm health if drinking is moderate, at least as far as we can tell. But drinking for one’s health probably won’t work, and unfortunately IQ is hardly malleable at all, so nothing one can do there.

Bottom line: moderate drinking probably won’t kill you, but it probably won’t help much either. Cheers!


Leave a Comment:

JayMan says September 10, 2014

This works for a lot of things though, not just alcohol consumption.

Indeed, this works for almost everything… 🙂

Thorfinnsson says September 10, 2014

I think there is another big reason drinkers tend to out-live non-drinkers: non-drinkers don’t have any friends.

    Mangan says September 10, 2014

    You know, I was going to say “lol” but there may be something to that. Loneliness is said to be more damaging to health than a pack a day cigarette habit. Possibly a large portion of those who don’t drink are sitting at home alone.

    Thorfinnsson says September 11, 2014

    Humor is only funny when it says something true, and I wasn’t joking. In many cultures including Western culture, social functions go hand-in-hand with alcohol consumption.

    Many of us have friends or family who battled with alcohol abuse and ended up becoming teetotalers, often as a result of Alcoholics Anonymous. To the rest of us they become killjoys and bores, and because we are sensitive to their plight we in turn drink less. This tends to spoil the social interaction, making us less interested in their company despite our best efforts. If one refuses to moderate alcohol consumption in the presence of these AA teetotalers, they in turn will avoid us to resist the temptation (some of them also adopt puritan-evangelist attitudes to tee-totaling and attempt to spread the gospel, so to speak).

    So there is no doubt in my mind at all that teetotalers are lonely and that this is very bad for their health.

    One interesting way to see if alcohol really is good for health is to look at the health of tee-totaling religions compared to Western and Asian drinkers, matching IQ and other confounding variables where possible. Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists would be good places to start, and perhaps the high IQ Pakistani diaspora in the United States (Islam as a whole introduces too many confounding variables).

    Mangan says September 11, 2014

    However, plenty of teetotalers are with each other, because whole families are often that way. OTOH, one can drink alone, like plenty of alcoholics do.

    I was once invited to a dry wedding. I declined.

J says September 12, 2014

Denis, I dont get the bottom line “moderate drinking probably won’t kill you, but it probably won’t help much either”. Did you mean that only immoderate drinking helps? I seem to vaguely remember that even moderate drinking reduces coronary problems. My Mother used to frighten me that drink will make me dumb. Is there any scientific basis to that? I think she saw the dumb peasants of her village drink too much and linked the two things.

    Mangan says September 12, 2014

    J, heavy drinking will do plenty of damage, including to the brain. But the point about moderate drinking is that it is probably not the cause of better health, or at least that’s what I’m asserting here. Neither view is proven, but more research is needed to show that drinking causes better health.

J says September 16, 2014


(1) Intelligent people drinks a lot. They must know something.

(2) Drinking may or may not cause better health, but certainly lifts one’s spirit.

Anonymous says September 22, 2014

Since that graph flattens off at “bright”, I would be interested what the Terman data says about this. They have records of alcohol consumption and mortality, but I can’t see where they analysed this issue.

The Myth says December 15, 2014

Any credence to the theory that the ethanol relaxes blood vessels which *may* be how alcohol can actually be beneficial?

I’m also wondering about hormesis here. Other animals, primates included, seek out fermented fruits and get a buzz off of them. Just for the kicks or is there some benefit there?

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