Can Staying Sober Shorten Your Life?

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Most of the research has focused on the cardiovascular benefits of alcohol: it thins the blood, reducing the likelihood of blood clots, and increases levels of good cholesterol.

A 2010 meta-analysis of data from the U.S., Great Britain, Japan, and Sweden, found that those who consume one to two drinks a day were about 20 percent less likely to die following a heart attack than those who steered clear of alcohol.

Anecdotally, doctors say that less-documented associations with alcohol, such as ties to stress reduction and social prowess, may play a role in the effect as well.

There could also be stress-reduction benefits garnered from unwinding with that end-of-the-day cocktail, says Dr. Alison Moores, an expert in geriatric medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In the study, drinkers were also more social than abstainers, who have fewer close friends and lower quality of friend support, a factor that may play into stress level and emotional health as people age.

Alcohol's Not for Everyone

Does all this add up to a universal recommendation to indulge in a nightly drink? Not necessarily, doctors say.

For one thing, the cardio-protective benefits of alcohol are beneficial predominantly to those middle-aged and older, Gwyther says.

"People should not get the idea as young folks that drinking is good for their health, [especially considering] most addiction to alcohol begins before age 25," he says.

Even moderate alcohol consumption has been tied to an increased likelihood of breast cancer and certain gastrointestinal cancers, Katz says, so those at increased risk for such cancers may not reap a benefit from habitual drinking.

Doctors also warn that these studies should not be used as an excuse to indulge in more than two drinks a day.

Especially for those who have a family history of alcoholism or may be otherwise susceptible to developing an addiction, a daily dose of alcohol may not be an apt prescription, says Dr. Reid Finlayson, professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University.

"More is not better, excessive alcohol [use] is a major cause of preventable death and chronic disease in our society and people certainly need that reminder as much as they need to know that light drinking can be healthy," Katz says.

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