Can Staying Sober Shorten Your Life?

VIDEO: Alcohal and Mortality Rates

It runs counter to decades of medical advice, but again and again, researchers are finding that those who drink moderately, and in some cases even those who drink heavily, outlive their sober peers.

In a recent study from the University of Texas, Austin, researchers followed middle-aged subjects into old age and found that while nearly 70 percent of abstainers were dead within twenty years of starting the study, only 60 percent of heavy drinkers and 41 percent of the moderate drinkers had died by that time.

Findings such as this have met with much controversy in the medical community, less because it supports the health benefits of modest drinking, and more because it suggests that those who say no to that evening glass of wine are substantially more likely to die sooner.

Studies show that a little bit of alcohol (less than two drinks a day) can be healthy for your heart. But how could staying away from alcohol shorten your life?

Alcohol or the Lifestyle That Accompanies It?

Some have suggested that other factors associated with drinking frequency are behind this difference in longevity, such as wealth, race, physical activity or even social activity.

For instance, people who are wealthier are more likely to drink, but are also more likely to have good health care, points out Dr. Robert Gwyther, professor of family medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Others suggest that moderate drinkers tend to be more social and hence have a stronger social support system -- something studies have connected to increased longevity, especially in old age.

In addition, those who abstain are also more likely to do so because of an existing health problem or because they are recovering alcoholics, and the mystery behind this effect begins to fade.

The Problem of Sobreity

In fact, the University of Texas researchers went into their study expecting "that a substantial part of the health benefits associated with moderating drinking were due to confounding factors associated with alcohol abstention," Charles J. Holahan, a professor in the department of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and corresponding author for the study said in a statement.

When controlling for age and gender only, researchers saw a significant difference in mortality between drinkers and non-drinkers similar to that found in other studies.

"Controlling for former problem drinking status, existing health problems, and key socio-demographic and social-behavioral factors substantially reduced the mortality effect," Holahan noted, but even then, the effect was still significant.

This means that the "benefit is smaller than we previously thought," but because it still remains after "meticulously" controlling for so many variables, this study provides "powerfully reinforced evidence that this happens," says Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale Medical School.

One issue in this study, is that because of restrictions in the sample, lifelong abstainers were not included, only previous drinkers who had quit. Though past studies have found that even when compared to those who never touch alcohol, moderate drinkers live longer, this study cannot speak to this comparison.

Drinkers Do Best, in Moderation

Most doctors agree that moderate drinking, defined as one or two drinks a day, confers modest health benefits.

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