Does drinking Alcohol really help you to live over 90?

90+ AlcoholVarious media outlets have been reporting the news that the secret sauce for long life is Alcohol …


Is this really true?

Spoiler Alert: Probably not.

My first immediate thought was to wonder if this was a “study” sponsored by the beverage industry. In anticipation of that I looked, but no, that is not the story here, instead something else actually is.

The Alpha Source

So where exactly does this come from?

UC Irvine Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders (UCI MIND) has an ongoing study since about 1981 into the 90+ age group. They have a very specific interest in gaining an understanding of what causes neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, Lewy body dementia, and Huntington’s diseases, so they study the oldest of the old.

The flurry of all the latest media hype comes via a talk given by Dr. Claudia Kawas, a UCI MIND faculty investigator. She gave a presentation an the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual conference that took place 15-19 Feb in Austin, TX and laid out findings from their 90+ study. She highlighted a link between moderate alcohol consumption and longevity …

In an observational study of participants age 90 and older, Dr. Kawas and her team found that consuming about two glasses of beer or wine daily was associated with 18% reduced risk of premature death. Findings also suggest regular exercise, social and cognitive engagement, and a few extra pounds in older age are associated with longevity. 

So that’s it then, just drink a couple of glasses of wine or beer and you will live to be over 90 … right?

Er … no, seriously just no. Have a glass or two if you enjoy it, but be also fully aware that it is not medicine.

Yes, they have observed a correlation, but they have not established that people who lived to be 90+ did so because they drank one or two glasses of their beverage of choice per day.

Their actual paper that lays out the correlation has not just been published, it comes from 2007. What they found is that the elderly who drank a couple of glasses of anything at all with some alcohol reduced their risk of death by 15% when compared with those that did not drink.

There are a few rather obvious points to make here.

  1. People who are drinking large amounts of Alcohol will most probably not make it to 90+. We know that the more you drink the more adverse the health effects will be, so we really are focusing on moderate consumption.
  2. If you are elderly and your health is not good, then you will strive to do your best to overcome that and so it is highly probable that you will not be drinking. To put that another way, if you are 90+ and still enjoying a glass or two each day, then it is distinctly probable that your good health is what enables you to be able to enjoy a glass or two, and it is not the glass or two that causes your good health. The things that might be the actual causal reason for your good health may be something quite different, such as exercise, diet, genes, etc…

In other words, if you are drinking to enable a long life, then you are probably fooling yourself.

The 90+ study is not the only game in town

Should we be worried about our Alcohol use?

Probably yes if it is excessive, and to be clear, for many “normal” equates to “excessive”.

There is another study that has just been published within the Lancet that points to that answer. Entitled “Contribution of alcohol use disorders to the burden of dementia in France 2008–13: a nationwide retrospective cohort study”, and published about a week ago, they discovered something rather shocking. It appears to link alcohol consumption, with a marked decline in brain function.

Basically they pulled the medical records of about 1 million people in France who had been diagnosed with dementia and proceeded to look for other things that were associated with it, for example smoking, diabetes, blood pressure, etc…What they found is that the greatest predictor for dementia was having an alcohol use disorder. This association remained solid across all age groups studied, and it also remained solid across all different types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

The study author, Dr. Jürgen Rehm, director of the University of Toronto’s Center for Addiction and Mental Health Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, commented as follows …

“As with a lot of things, the dose makes the poison, Every year, more than three million deaths are linked to alcohol—so clearly, we drink alcohol in quantities that are way too high.

Some people look at their drinking habits and say, ‘Oh, it’s not so bad,’ or ‘A lot of people drink this much,’ and yes, a lot of people do—but that’s why a lot of people are dying prematurely, and maybe why a lot of people are developing dementia.”

So what do we know?

  • Alcohol consumption is linked with negative health outcomes …cancer (Alcohol is a carcinogen), heart disease, and now dementia.
  • In moderate amounts it appears to be OK, and just might (or might not) be beneficial – this is really not clear. If it results in you having more years, but ends up scrambling your brain, that that’s not such a great outcome.
  • Far too many drink far too much.

If there is a benefit to be derived, then it is only enabled as very moderate amounts, one or two glasses per day maximum, but remember that is a correlation and not a causal relationship.

While there are some things that we do know, there is also a great deal that we still don’t know. Like many things, simple easy answers just don’t exist, and so all we can honestly conclude is “it’s complicated”.

Bottom Line: Don’t use media stories when making lifestyle choices, and that remains doubly true when they are telling you something you really wish and hope is true, but probably is not.

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