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Alcohol and Your Health: What Studies Say About the Effects of Drinking

February 23, 2018, 1:00 AM UTC

On this National Margarita Day, you may be wondering how bad it really is to drink two rounds of buy-one-get-one tequila and lime beverages by yourself.

The effects of alcohol seem to change each week, depending on the newest research. Studies often proclaim the benefits and risks of light, moderate, and heavy drinking, but it’s rarely as straightforward as headlines suggest.

Health Benefits of Alcohol

Could drinking be better for your life span than exercise? A recent study of 90-year-olds found moderate drinking was a more significant factor in living beyond 90 than exercising.

This research, like many others related to alcohol and health, is observational and picks up on trends in datasets. For the 90- to 99-year-olds who participated, longevity is correlated with moderate alcohol consumption. This doesn’t necessarily mean that alcohol beverages cause you to live longer, though. Other lifestyle characteristics of moderate drinkers — like strong social networks — may be responsible for longevity.

Red wine could help with teeth and gum health, according to a new study. Researchers found plant compounds in wine that bolster oral health by fending off tooth decay and gum disease. But much higher concentrations of the compound were used for the study than naturally occur in wine.

Moderate drinking has been linked to cardiovascular health, though the finding has been contested.

Researchers point out that those who choose not to drink often do so because of other health complications, creating what’s referred to as an “abstainer bias” in these type of studies.

A 2017 study designed to correct for abstainer bias still found that moderate drinking might protect against heart attacks, strokes, chest pain, and fatal heart disease.

Plus, drinking just one or two drinks per day does help keep good cholesterol high, according to the American Heart Association.

Health Risks of Alcohol

The high number of calories in alcoholic beverages can contribute to weight gain.

This can be a case when alcohol is bad for your heart. Too many extra pounds gained from drinking can lead to health issues like heart disease and type two diabetes.

Drinking alcoholic beverages has been linked to at least seven types of cancer, including cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, breast, and colon.

The connection to higher cancer risk is so pronounced that the American Society of Oncology put out a statement in November warning against heavy drinking.

Excessive alcohol consumption could also increase the risk of early-onset dementia, a recent French study found.

In adults with dementia, alcohol abuse disorders were more than twice as common as in the rest of the population.

Alcohol consumption

It’s important to remember what constitutes “a drink.”

A single drink is an eight-ounce serving of beer, five-ounce serving of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Moderate drinking is defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. Four drinks in one sitting for women and five drinks in one sitting for men is considered binge drinking, while more than eight drinks per week for women and 15 for men is considered heavy drinking.

Despite all the studies about alcohol, there is still much more scientists don’t know about its effects on the body and long term health. Moderation continues to be the best rule of thumb.