Men Who Drink Moderately Have a Lower Risk of Diabetes

From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 11, 2000 (Urbana, Ill.) -- Carrie Nation might be rolling in her grave, but yet another study shows that light to moderate drinking might actually have health benefits. Teetotalers and heavy drinkers faced about twice the risk of developing type 2 diabetes than men who drank moderately, defined as 5-10 drinks per week, according to a study published in the January issue of the journal Diabetes Care.

About 15 million Americans suffer from type 2 diabetes, and the disease usually develops after the age of 40, according the American Diabetes Association. In addition, treatment of diabetes and its side effects consumed more than 25% of all Medicare spending in the United States in 1998. As a result, researchers have been looking into ways to lower the risk of developing the disease in the first place.

Since moderate alcohol consumption, usually defined as one or two drinks per day, decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, Ming Wei, MD, and his colleagues at the Cooper Institute and the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, decided to examine whether drinking had any effect on the development of type 2 diabetes.

Earlier studies have generated conflicting results: some have shown that the risk of developing the disease increased the more patients drink, but others have shown the opposite.

To settle the question, Wei, a clinical epidemiologist at the Cooper Institute, pored over 25 years' worth of clinical data on 8,633 men who were examined at the Cooper Clinic between 1970 and 1995. Unlike a typical hospital, the clinic was designed as a preventive medicine center, and doctors had always kept detailed medical records and notes on the lifestyle of patients with an eye toward conducting long-term studies.

The doctors gathered data on patients' smoking habits, alcohol consumption, weight, and exercise habits. And as the patients came back for follow-up visits, they were tested to find out which ones had developed diabetes. "They got all the data. This is unusual for a hospital," Wei tells WebMD.

Over the years, the moderate drinkers fared the best. Teetotalers faced almost twice the risk of developing the disease as moderate drinkers who drank five and 10 drinks per week. Heavy drinkers -- defined as those men who drank more than 10 drinks per week -- faced a risk more than twice that of the moderate drinkers, while light drinkers who drank less than five drinks a week fared slightly worse than the moderate drinkers.

But the results may not be so clear-cut, says Robert Hanson, MD, a senior staff scientist at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Phoenix. Moderate drinkers tend to be healthier than nondrinkers because some nondrinkers avoid alcohol of a medical condition, thus moderate drinkers on average are more physically active. "It's always hard to know whether this is the effect of the alcohol or the physical activity," he says. And he also cautions that the study should be repeated because other studies have generated conflicting results.

Still, the study "raises the possibility that moderate alcohol intake may be protective in diabetes. It also suggests that heavy intake increases the risk, so there may be an ideal intake," Hanson says.

Vital Information:

  • A new study shows that moderate drinkers have the lowest risk of developing type 2 diabetes, compared with nondrinkers and heavy drinkers.
  • Heavy drinkers have twice the risk of developing diabetes compared with moderate drinkers.
  • Moderate drinkers, on average, tend to be healthier and more active than nondrinkers, so it is unknown whether the alcohol itself has a protective effect.