Sneaky Spirits: An Unbiased Look at Alcohol’s Effect on Longevity
If there’s anything close to a universal truth in the science community, it’s that today’s common knowledge can easily turn into tomorrow’s misconception.
Cigarettes were once good for you, or at least not harmful…
Morphine was a great remedy for teething children…
And women couldn’t run distance races because their uterus might fall out…
Science, you see, advances gradually – continuously breaking barriers and long-lasting dogmas along the way. It’s why revising an outlook or opinion based on new evidence shouldn’t be at all trivial.
However, problems start to arise when third parties fund or advocate for studies when they are vested in the outcome.
Tobacco companies and pharmaceutical organizations may be the most notorious offenders. Even recently, for context, pharmaceutical sales representatives touted studies describing OxyContin as addictive in only 1% of patients. This year, we also discovered that many studies purporting a key chemical/serotonin-based theory of depression might be inaccurate.
It turns out that Big Pharma funded many of these now-questionable depression studies. Is it a coincidence? Unlikely.
With these concerns around scientific papers, on top of knowing just how far “common knowledge” can travel, we wanted to investigate perhaps one of the more popular debates today.
Ever heard of the saying, “a glass of red wine a day keeps the doctor away?”
If so, you’re not alone.
Over the years, we’ve seen several academic papers touting the health benefits of wine and the modest consumption of alcohol. This has led to confusion for consumers and clinicians alike, sparking several conflicting opinions along the way.
To get closer to the truth, though, today we’re diving deep into the recent landmark study on alcohol’s effects on longevity, mortality, and whether moderate alcohol intake is the healthful supplement some claim it is.
Is it possible that even an occasional indulgence impacts lifespan drastically? Let’s find out.
A Question of Moderation
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that excessive drinking – in any way, shape, or form – is generally bad for your health. This is “common knowledge” that is essentially undebatable.
For context, people diagnosed with alcohol use disorder see lifespans decrease by up to 28 years. Even slightly-excessive drinking, or roughly 10-15 alcoholic beverages per week, could shorten a drinker’s life by one to two years, with just a few more weekly drinks (18) knocking off four to five years.
Again, these statistics are largely indisputable. Because alcohol addiction is a very serious topic that many people struggle with, several studies have been published on alcoholism – all of which further confirms the dangers of excessive drinking.
What’s less clear, though, are the health effects of light-to-moderate drinking.
We’ve heard it throughout our lives. But the assertions may not have been backed by sound data when we heard them…
“This woman lived to be 110 because of whiskey.”
“A glass of red wine a night is good for your heart” is one we hear most often.
Others even tout moderate drinking as a way to lower your risk of Type 2 diabetes and some types of depression. According to the front page of Google Search, alcohol can actually reduce your risk of developing and dying from heart disease!
Are these sources accurate, or are these “benefits” mainly correlated with other health factors?
Has the science advanced to reversing these claims, or is alcohol such a cultural mainstay that we’ll seek justification for our vices ex post facto via any method possible?
To better understand the holistic pro-health argument, we must first understand the central, structural backbone behind the cultural phenomenon of promoting alcohol for health and longevity.
The French Paradox
The French Paradox (FP), coined in 1991, neatly encapsulates nearly every aspect of the pro-health argument for alcohol.
The FP resulted from French scientist Serge Renaud’s studies into French dietary habits, specifically high saturated fat consumption and a noticeably low rate of coronary heart disease (CHD). At the time, consensus dietary advice was that CHD was due to a lifetime’s saturated fat consumption, particularly those from animal products, and that saturated fat should comprise less than 10% of daily energy intake.
Renaud found that in defiance of consensus opinion, the French had a diet steeped in saturated fats (from meat, milk, cheese, etc.) but a markedly lower CHD rate than other European countries. Now, Renaud had some flaws in his study, including:
- Not accounting for daily, sustained active lifestyles in the studied regions. All three areas tested (Lille, Strasbourg, and Toulouse) are preeminently walkable; it could be safely assumed that an average resident got their daily steps in. Active lifestyles are shown to be correlated with a lessened likelihood of CHD.
- Systemic methodology and assessment issues such as:
- Improper physician accounting of CHD deaths.
- Inexplicable variability in CHD rates and mortality that shifted demographically and regionally over time.
- Alternate studies found a minimal effect of reduced dietary fat intake on mortality or development of CHD.
Still, Renaud figured only one thing could offset the French stereotype of constant saturated fat consumption – the equally stereotypical enthusiasm for wine.
Many subsequent studies were carried out, but the broader determination at the time was that:
- Moderate alcohol drinking, i.e., two to three servings daily, has a preventative effect on CHD.
- Alcohol, in general, raises HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) and offsets saturated fat’s contribution to heightened LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol).
- Compared to beer and hard liquor, wine, in particular, leads to lower mortality.
- Wine’s reduction in CHD-related mortality could be as significant as 24 – 31%.
We’ll concede that it is possible that, in moderation, wine and alcohol could contribute to preventing CHD or offset other contributing factors. But that cannot be classified as a contribution to longevity in and of itself, but rather one to reducing mortality (a fine distinction, sure, but an important one). A tangential relationship to reducing a singular mortality cause morphed into proactive benefits as the ex post facto argument kicked into high gear.
We’ll find out if the recent research agrees that wine makes you live longer – independent of mortality risks.
The Resveratrol Dilemma
Remember, the pro-health argument at this point focuses explicitly on wine.
Resveratrol is a phenol in grape skins and, by extension, is present in wine. Phenols are compounds made from plants, usually reacting to an external stimulus or threat like damage, bugs, etc. Phenols are also found worldwide in plant medicines used by indigenous cultures, and many have been extracted or synthesized by modern scientists for health and commercial applications. Vanilla flavoring, sore throat sprays, antiseptic and disinfectants, and lotions all contain phenols as active ingredients.
Resveratrol, a well-known phenol, also touts supposed health benefits. But there’s one claim that blows its pedestrian cousins out of the water – resveratrol can, supposedly, extend lifespan.
It’s hard to find reputable sources on this claim today. Still, we did uncover one from 2008 that touted chocolate, alongside wine, as a resveratrol repository and thus a life extension miracle. Hershey’s Center for Health and Nutrition sponsored the study, so we’re certain that it’s unbiased and looks at resveratrol’s influence on longevity with an utterly neutral eye…
In all seriousness, resveratrol’s pro-health and lifespan impact through natural sources or supplementation is largely debunked. Little evidence shows that resveratrol promotes longevity or general health and well-being. Research to date shows no effect on heart disease, no impact on blood pressure, and no impact on secondary aging outcomes like a reduction in executive function.
Even David Sinclair – one of longevity’s favorite thought-leaders – couldn’t spin any significant results on resveratrol, even after his company Sirtris Pharmaceuticals was bought by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in 2008 for $720 million.
At the time, resveratrol (and the study of sirtuins) was a popular candidate for longevity, yet nothing came of it beyond a little more understanding of cellular metabolism. Thus, despite big pharma backing, in 2013, GSK shut down Sirtris and its development candidates.
And that’s not it for resveratrol. Not only are there no current studies showing a discernible effect on longevity, but the amount of resveratrol in wine is also relatively low. A standard glass of red wine has around 1mg of resveratrol, and the studies debunking its health effects ranged between 300-500mg administered.
It seems clear that resveratrol isn’t the lifespan booster it’s been touted as, but the impact on the zeitgeist remains.
To this day, a cursory Google Search will find many alternative health blogs and unregulated supplement companies hawking resveratrol extract as a longevity tool. The collective consciousness equally cements the wine/resveratrol/longevity link.
The Research Arena Today
We only touched on one aspect of supposed alcohol benefiting longevity. But we’re going to mention yet another pro-health misconception before we continue…
Previous research has told us that those who consume alcohol in moderation live longer than those who are abstinent. Even an older study concludes that men who drink moderate amounts of alcohol live longer than those who drink either heavily or abstain.
That may leave you wondering, “well, if alcohol is so bad for you, then why does such a correlation exist?” How is it possible that those abstinent – who don’t drink at all – have lower life expectancy rates?
Well, the answer lies in something called risk factors. And it’s what many of the previous studies failed to account for.
For example, a twenty-year study assessing alcohol’s impacts on northern German residents (which concluded in 2021) found that although self-declared abstinent participants had a lower life expectancy than active drinkers, 72% had one or more risk factors, including past risky alcoholic consumption, past (unsuccessful) attempts to stop or cut back on drinking, daily smoking habits, or health self-assessments ranging from fair to poor.
To cut to the chase, with this data, the study concluded that much of the previous studies’ data attributing higher mortality to abstinence wasn’t relevant if it did not account for history and risk factors. Taking it a step further, they asserted that “our findings add one piece to the growing evidence that low to moderate alcohol drinking should not be recommended for health reasons.”
Reinforcing the German study and accounting for risk factors, one group of Taiwanese researchers broke demographics into abstinent, modest, and regular drinkers and found the following:
- Modest drinkers were better off than regular drinkers – less obese, more active, and had better health profiles than the heavier-drinking cohort.
- Regular drinkers lived an average of 6.86 to 10.25 years less than non-drinkers.
- Modest drinkers could lose up to 2 years compared to non-drinkers.
So, while we’ve determined that moderate alcohol use likely neither promotes longevity nor decreases mortality, does alcohol, even in moderation, directly link to reduced lifespan?
More research seems to say yes.
To preface the research regarding alcohol’s impact on telomeres, we must understand what they are and their possible impacts on aging.
Telomeres are endpieces, or caps, of DNA on your chromosomes that protect the chromosome from damage. Telomeres naturally shorten with age, so preventing shortening or damage to telomeres is a focus for the longevity community.
Research shows that shorter telomeres are associated with increased disease rates (including cancer) and reduced survival outlook. Positive lifestyle factors associated with longevity, like exercise, can also reduce shortening speed which lends credibility to the theory.
In contrast, smoking, obesity, and excessive stress can speed up the damage. In a nutshell, factors associated with reduced lifespan exacerbate telomere shortening. It also seems to cause the ill effects of aging and ultimately death, rather than being an immaterial process concurrent with aging.
So smoking, obesity, stress, etc., shorten telomeres and reduce lifespan. What about alcohol, especially at moderate levels of consumption?
A 2022 UK study used Mendelian randomization to determine the effect of alcohol on telomere length and subsequently accelerated aging. Mendelian randomization is a method to see how much variation genes show during exposure testing. In this case, researchers know the typical rate of telomere shortening and use this method to test for a change in speed when exposed to alcohol.
The research measured drinking status with “UK units of alcohol,” with one unit representing 8g of ethanol. For context, most standard drinks contain around 14g of ethanol. Therefore, a reasonable estimate is around two measured units for one beer, one glass of wine, or one shot of liquor. (Divide the total units referenced in half, and that’s about how many drinks it refers to.)
The study found that the heaviest drinkers (29 or more units weekly; ~15 drinks) had a marked difference in telomere length compared to lower-rate drinkers (6 or fewer units weekly; ~3 drinks), and past diagnoses of alcohol use disorder implied even shorter telomeres. This may seem intuitive, but their other findings were startling:
- Each standard deviation increase in units consumed weekly implied telomere reduction equivalent to a year of life lost.
- Genetic predictions of alcohol use disorder and shortened telomeres were only found in those that currently drank, negating a potential hypothesis of a separate genetic component linking propensity to drink and faster shortening independent of each other.
- There appears to be a minimum requirement for excess telomere damage as the impacts were more devastating as the weekly units increased. Only 3% of the study population had never consumed alcohol in their lives – a sample that’s far too insufficient to compare against light drinkers to determine the threshold for telomere damage.
Alternative theories exist to counter the direct causation of alcohol on telomere length, but neither is reassuring. One posits that, before conception, parents’ excessive drinking damages their reproductive cells and predisposes the child to hastened aging. The other is that mothers’ pregnant drinking harms the fetus in utero and increases the aging rate throughout the child’s life. Neither theory is particularly testable, so the best we can do is understand that drinking is linked to chromosomal damage, although the injury may take a generation to manifest.
The jury’s still out on why drinking seems to reduce telomere length while speeding the aging process, but the team hypothesizes that damage by increased oxidative stress and inflammation is the culprit.
Both oxidative stress and inflammation have been shown to shorten telomeres in lab and practical testing; it’s a reasonable inference.
“Eat not to dullness and drink not to elevation.”
– Benjamin Franklin
Alcohol is a part of most cultures, and many occasionally indulge as a social lubricant or for true enjoyment. But like Benjamin Franklin said, a good rule of thumb is to enjoy all good things in moderation.
Outside of physical impact, some studies do show positive effects from alcohol. When used in low or moderate amounts, alcohol may improve mood and social cohesion, but transitioning to alcohol’s psychological benefits is a story for another day.
Alcohol, in excess by any standard, has a negative effect on your health and lifespan. Outside of any rationalizations, the evidence is undeniable.
And despite conventional wisdom’s assertions that moderate intake can improve longevity, or at least not reduce it, studies increasingly show that abstainers’ reduced lifespan is primarily due to pre-abstinence risk factors. Study sample sizes of lifelong abstainers are often too small to draw meaningful conclusions, which compounds the research limitation.
Lastly, we now have reasons to believe that alcohol consumption in any amount influences telomere shortening, resulting in lifespan reduction.
What this means, for most reading this, is that you must at least acknowledge and understand the role of alcohol on your overall health and longevity.
Suppose you optimize every facet of your life towards living as long and as healthy as possible but have a few drinks on Friday nights. In that case, you should do so mindfully, considering that you’re likely offsetting or reducing the benefits of your hard work.
Luckily, there is no limit to the amount of data-driven human optimization tools and hardware. Furthermore, the popular emergence of zero-proof alcoholic beverages and bars appears well-timed, given the newfound evidence we discussed above.
Using tools such as biomarker trackers also can give insight into your individual, specific internal response to drinking at any level. Just be aware, though, that the results might be as concerning as telomere studies. One wearable company gathered data from thousands of users and found that after as little as a single drink resting heart rate increased, heart rate variability decreased, sleep lessened in length and quality, and recovery degraded by an average of 8%.
What does the underlying invisible damage look like after years of consumption if those are just the immediate aftereffects of a single drink?
Ultimately, we all must make our own decisions. Still, scientific advancement and a changing cultural landscape less enthusiastically supportive of alcohol are helping make rationalized analysis more straightforward and accurate.
Life is a series of tradeoffs, and arming yourself with the knowledge to make those risk/reward decisions intelligently is the first step in taking control of your health and longevity.