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Is Wine a Smart Choice, or the Choice of the Smart?

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Aug. 15, 2001 -- Are wine drinkers healthy because they drink wine, or are people who make smart choices about their health more likely to drink wine than beer? A new study comparing social characteristics of Danish wine quaffers with those of beer guzzlers suggests that people who drink fermented grape juice may have an edge over those who savor fermented grain beverages.

"It's quite clear that at least in Denmark and probably in North America those who drink wine are more likely to have higher social and economic status, higher education, higher IQ, and have parents with higher education and higher socioeconomic status, and those factors are very strongly related to health," June Reinisch, PhD, director emeritus of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction in Bloomington, Ind., tells WebMD.

One could fill a small library with the published studies examining whether alcohol consumption has specific health benefits or detriments. The evidence to date suggests that moderate alcohol consumption may be protective against heart attack and stroke, but the reasons why are unclear.

Most of the studies focused on specific components of alcohol rather than on the drinkers themselves. Following a series of reports suggesting that Danes who drink wine in moderation were healthier than others who either drink beer or abstain, Reinisch and Danish colleagues conducted a study designed to identify possible social, mental, and/or personality characteristics that might explain the differences.

They studied nearly 700 Danish men and women between the ages of 29 and 34. The participants were interviewed about their drinking habits, health behaviors, social status, and educational levels, and were subjected to a battery of personality and intelligence tests.

The researchers found that wine drinkers tend to have higher IQs, higher socioeconomic status, and better-educated parents than beer drinkers. Wine drinkers also appeared to be more mentally stable, and less likely than beer drinkers to engage in risky health behaviors.

"Our results suggest that wine drinking is associated with optimal social, intellectual, and personality functioning, while beer drinking is associated with suboptimal characteristics," the authors write in the Aug. 13/27 issue of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

"The quite large IQ differences, particularly in males, surprised us," says study author Erik L. Mortensen, PhD, with the Institute of Preventive Medicine and department of health psychology at the University of Copenhagen.

"Secondly," he tells WebMD, "the fact that all differences between beer and wine drinkers consistently favored wine drinkers -- these results were more consistent than I expected." He speculates that wine drinkers may make healthier choices, such as eating fruits and vegetables and avoiding smoking.

"It may not be the beverage you drink; it may be who drinks that beverage," agrees Reinisch.

But a doctor who studies the effects of alcohol on health tells WebMD that education and social status can't explain away all of the health differences seen between moderate drinkers and abstainers or abusers.

"This paper points to the fact that when we do study alcohol and any disease, we have to be very careful to look at socioeconomic status, dietary patterns, physical activity, and all sorts of lifestyle parameters," says Eric B. Rimm, ScD, associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. "But I've spent the last 13 or 14 years studying the effects of alcohol on chronic disease, particularly coronary heart disease, and there's no question in my mind from 60 or 70 ... studies that I've looked at that alcohol in moderation lowers coronary heart disease."

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