UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Health magazines and websites alike often tout one of the more welcome medical studies that crop up from time to time — the ones that say drinking alcohol occasionally is actually good for you. Some scientists even claim that people who don’t drink at all may be less healthy than those who drink lightly. But in a recent study conducted by a team of researchers from Pennsylvania State University, it’s now believed those claims might be wildly overstated.
Researchers examined health data from a long-term research project out of the United Kingdom called the National Child Development Study, which followed 9,000 individuals born in 1958. Among data recorded in the longitudinal study, drinking and smoking habits of participants were tracked as they aged between 23 years old and 55 years old.
The study found that about a third of the men and women surveyed who drink at the light-to-moderate level (about six drinks per week) were unlikely to smoke cigarettes regularly. This cross-section of participants were the healthiest in middle age of the group. The other three clear groupings were not so lucky.
Researchers categorized these groups as: those who drank lightly but also smoked regularly, those who drank heavily and smoked, and those who abstained from drinking alcohol altogether or reduced their drinking over time.
The health of these groups were found to be linked to factors other than current drinking habits, according to lead author Jeremy Staff, a professor of criminology and sociology at Penn State.
“Alcohol abstainers are a diverse group. They include former heavy drinkers who quit due to problems with alcohol, as well as those who quit drinking due to poor health, and not just lifetime abstainers,” he says in a news release. “Medical professionals and public health officials should be wary of drawing conclusions about the so-called ‘dangers’ of never drinking without more robust evidence.”
Of the middle-aged participants surveyed in the study, about 1 in 5 who said they don’t drink reported earlier in life that they drank regularly. The researchers at Penn State concluded that those who drink very little or lightly may not recall their earlier drinking habits or simply under-report drinking when they were younger.
The Penn State researchers also found that those with the highest educational accolades at age 23 tend to drink moderately into middle age and smoke far less than less-educated people, contributing to studies that show better health in those who drink lightly.
“Evidence continues to grow that alcohol has many health risks, including for cancer. Therefore, it is dangerous to report only benefits of moderate alcohol consumption,” adds Jennifer Maggs, one of the co-authors and professor of human development and family studies at the university. “Drinking habits are also shaped by our education, health earlier in life, and related lifestyle factors including smoking. These other influences may be the real factors underlying the connection between drinking and midlife health.”
The full study was published in Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.