Is alcohol good for you? Harvard, MIT scientists slam door on studies showing ‘health benefits’ of drinking

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BOSTON — Countless people subscribe to the belief that a nightly glass of wine does wonders for the heart and cardiovascular system. New research from Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, and Harvard, however, is calling for closing time on theories stating moderate alcohol use is good for the heart. Scientists explain any prior observed scientific connections between the occasional beer or glass of wine and robust cardiovascular health likely resulted from other lifestyle factors usually seen among light to moderate drinkers.

In fact, this latest and quite large research project ultimately concludes drinking any amount of alcohol is linked to an increased risk of heart disease.

A total of 371,463 adults were examined for this project, with the median age being 57 years old. Average alcohol consumption on a weekly basis was 9.2 drinks. It’s worth mentioning that all of this data was originally collected for the UK Biobank, a major and ambitious on-going biomedical database and research resource collecting in-depth genetic and health information.

Moderate drinkers typically lead healthier lives

Similar to prior relevant studies, the research team initially noticed that moderate drinkers tend to show lower rates of heart disease. People who avoided drinking altogether were more likely to develop heart disease, but heavy drinkers were the most at-risk group by a wide margin.

Importantly, though, moderate drinkers were also living much healthier lives in general than any of the other participants, even those abstaining from alcohol altogether. These subjects, typically, reported exercising more, eating more vegetables, and less smoking. When study authors included such lifestyle factors into their calculations, any cardiovascular benefits tied specifically to moderate alcohol consumption essentially disappeared.

The research team applied the absolute latest version of a technique called Mendelian randomization. This process entails the use of genetic variants to identify whether or not an observed link between a specific exposure and an outcome is consistent with a causal effect. In simpler terms, does light alcohol consumption actually cause stronger heart disease protection?

“Newer and more advanced techniques in ‘non-linear Mendelian randomization’ now permit the use of human genetic data to evaluate the direction and magnitude of disease risk associated with different levels of an exposure,” says senior study author Dr. Krishna G. Aragam, a cardiologist at MGH and an associate scientist at the Broad Institute, in a statement. “We therefore leveraged these new techniques and expansive genetic and phenotypic data from biobank populations to better understand the association between habitual alcohol intake and cardiovascular disease.”

When genetic samples were taken and analyzed from patients, the results indeed indicated subjects with genetic variants predicting higher alcohol consumption were more likely to drink more alcohol, as well as more likely to have or develop hypertension and coronary artery disease.

Alcohol does more harm for heart health than good

The study reports both men and women can potentially put themselves at greater risk of heart issues depending on their alcohol habits. Small risk increases were noted while shifting from zero to seven drinks per week. Meanwhile, much higher risk increases were seen while progressing from seven to 14 drinks per week, and even higher risk profiles among both genders were recorded when consuming 21 or more drinks on a weekly basis.

Very notably, these findings even suggest levels of alcohol consumption currently deemed “low risk” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (less than two drinks daily for men and one drink daily for women) can raise one’s risk of heart problems.

All in all, the study finds we should all probably do our best to avoid alcohol altogether. If you drink a few alcoholic beverages per day or week, try and cut back, but the ideal solution is to put down the bottle altogether. Research also suggests that the relationship between alcohol consumption and heart health is exponential not linear. In other words, people who drink a lot stand to benefit more from a cardiovascular perspective by lowering their intake than moderate drinkers.

“The findings affirm that alcohol intake should not be recommended to improve cardiovascular health; rather, that reducing alcohol intake will likely reduce cardiovascular risk in all individuals, albeit to different extents based on one’s current level of consumption,” Dr. Aragam concludes.

The study is published in JAMA Network Open.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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Comments

  1. Exactly how would these so called ‘experts’ explain how the people of a certain greek island, who drink wine or alcohol every single day, are among the longest living people on earth?

    1. Maybe by suggesting that living in close knit communities, physical activity including walking a lot (in mountainous terraine no less) and eating whole foods grown locally and prepared at home every single day of their lives is far far more than enough to offset the much smaller effect of daily ingestion of locally grown and processed alcohol? Another one of those long lived “blue zone” communities is Loma Linda Seventh Day Adventists who famously drink no alcohol at all. So maybe, just maybe, consider the possibility that the keys to longevity are the things common to both those communities – which certainly don’t include alcohol. As the “so called experts” explain in the article “Importantly, though, moderate drinkers were also living much healthier lives in general than any of the other participants, even those abstaining from alcohol altogether. These subjects, typically, reported exercising more, eating more vegetables, and less smoking. When study authors included such lifestyle factors into their calculations, any cardiovascular benefits tied specifically to moderate alcohol consumption essentially disappeared.”

  2. I’ll wait for a study that I confirms my chosen behavior. Studies are like a bus, there will always be another come along.

  3. This is kind of a paradox. I have ischemic heart disease and alcohol has literally stopped heart attacks in their tracks when coffee has caused them for me. There are a few reasons for this. 1. If you are suffering from tachycardia associated with physical stress or stimuli it can mitigate this. 2. Grapeseed extract blocks estrogen which causes strokes 3. If you are experiencing mental stress that can cause a heart or brain response it can reduce this which can prevent a heart attack. That said the assessment that moderate drinkers are the healthiest is being overlooked. There are two reasons for this. One is that these individuals are able to drink in moderation meaning they likely have more self control for other things associated with moderation, which makes everyone healthier. So the stats are off due to personality differences. There are other factors that contribute to longevity. The second is because someone who is a moderate drinker has a lower tolerance, and therefore they are able to feel the same effects while consuming much less alcohol.

  4. I have read hundreds of scientific studies over the past 3 years concerning alcohol and alcoholism. One of the first ones I found was in a 2018 paper in The Lancet. There were 515 investigators that looked at 195 countries and territories from 1990 to 2016. They determined that the only level of alcohol consumption for optimal health is zero drinks a day! They also found that there are absolutely no benefits from drinking. We doctors do not have any problems telling people to NOT SMOKE; so we should be able to now advise them to NOT DRINK ALCOHOL. This is the only safe level. I have not drank any alcohol for 41 continuous years. Alcohol caused numerous medical problems in my life, disabled me, has damaged my mental/emotional health and I wish that I had never touched a drop! The makers, sellers, and drinkers of booze think everyone should drink but they are JUST PLAIN WRONG!! Do not listen to them; abstain from alcohol.

    1. I would say your comment is the only one worth reading here. Every comment trying to contradict it or provide justification for alcohol consumption is just an exercise in denial. If you have lived past middle age and continue to need a drink, ever, you know what’s going on if you are honest with yourself. If you don’t need a drink, why would you consume one if you know the facts?


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