Sept. 18, 2000 -- Medical researchers have known for quite a while that drinking alcohol moderately seems to have a beneficial effect on health, particularly on heart disease. Now a new study by Danish researchers suggests that wine drinkers have a substantially lower death rate than people who drink other forms of alcohol, according to an article published in the Sept. 19 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.
"There certainly seems to be a difference in the effect of drinking wine compared to beer or spirits. Wine drinkers appear to live longer," Morten Grønbæk, MD, tells WebMD. "Wine appears to have a beneficial effect on cancer mortality, as well as on mortality due to heart disease." Grønbæk is a research associate professor at the University of Copenhagen and lead author of the article.
"Alcohol is a pleasure many people enjoy, and it appears to actually make your arteries younger," Michael Roizen, MD, tells WebMD. "Alcohol in moderation seems to be beneficial unless a particular person has reasons to avoid it. We're talking here about small amounts of wine: one to two drinks per day for a man, and one-half to one drink per day for a woman." Roizen is professor and chairman of the department of anesthesia and critical care at the University of Chicago School of Medicine and author of the book Real Age: Are You As Young As You Can Be?
In the study, researchers looked at survey data on drinking patterns for almost 25,000 men and women, as well as data on death rates from national registries. This is the largest study of its kind so far. They found wine drinkers decreased their risk of death by a third compared with nondrinkers. People who avoided wine but drank other forms of alcohol showed a 10% reduction, compared to nondrinkers.
"This is a very interesting and somewhat provocative finding," says Barry Meisenberg, MD. "It fits with numerous other studies that show alcohol can reduce overall mortality. If someone already has the habit of drinking small amounts of alcohol, they can take comfort from this study." Meisenberg is an associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
"However, alcohol is a two-edged sword," he emphasizes. "While small amounts may have beneficial effects on mortality, when you go much above that amount the effects are reversed. The exact transition point may differ for every individual." For this reason, he does not believe physicians or public health officials should advise people to drink alcohol.
There are many individual patients who should not consume even small amounts of alcohol, he notes, due to conditions such as gastritis, liver disease, or medications used for high blood pressure. Alcohol has lots of calories, so drinking alcoholic beverages could be a problem for people who are dealing with obesity. "Consumers should first discuss this issue with their own physicians to find out whether they have something in their personal health history that could make even small amounts of alcohol dangerous," says Meisenberg, who also is head of the division of hematology and oncology, and deputy director of the university's Greenebaum Cancer Center.
Roizen believes the beneficial effects of wine -- as opposed to alcohol in general -- are due to a substance called resveratrol. "Grapes are about the only fruit that has resveratrol," he says. "People who do not drink wine may be able to obtain some of the same health benefits by eating grapes." Resveratrol has been shown in other studies to help slow the formation and growth of cancers.
"We still face the question, are these results due to the drinker or the drink," Grønbæk says. "Many studies suggest there may be substances in wine that have a beneficial effect on health, but it is still possible our results may be due to some other factor. For example, we've done studies here in Copenhagen showing wine drinkers also tend to eat a better diet." Therefore, he says, it is still too soon to recommend wine drinking for health reasons; more information is needed.