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One and Done: Alcohol Is Linked to Healthy Aging in Women

A Harvard study links middle-aged, moderate alcohol consumption to healthier aging in women.

Women of a certain age, it sounds easy and pleasant: one drink a day for better health. A study from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston showed that women who had one drink a day in midlife were more likely to reach age 70 or older without any chronic health problems such as diabetes or heart disease, and no major mental health or cognitive impairments.

Here’s what you need to know about the study before you uncork the Cabernet. The researchers used prospective data from the Nurses’ Health Study, which began in 1976. The 121,700 nurses enrolled in the study completed food frequency questionnaires. The study authors used these questionnaires to analyze the nurses’ alcohol consumption beginning at age 58 or so.

The key number is one. Nurses who had one drink a day of 15 grams of alcohol or less during midlife were healthier when older than those who did not drink at all, who drank two drinks per day, or who drank four drinks at a time. The type of alcohol consumed did not affect the outcome, but size does matter.  

Women hoping to be alert and disease-free at age 70 like the nurses in the study can’t push their luck with a more generous pour. A daily double martini, tumbler of Merlot, or 22-ounce schooner of craft beer won’t do. Fifteen grams or less of alcohol is a single 12-ounce beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1 ounce of other spirits such as vodka, gin, or rum. 

Timing also matters.  There is no evidence that trying to get a jump on the one-drink-a-day habit earlier, in the 30s or 40s, has any health benefit later in life.

Consistency counts, too. The researchers noted that drinking alcohol regularly in moderation, rather than occasional heavy drinking, produces a greater likelihood of successful aging.

Would the same results apply to men, or women of different ethnic groups? Most of the women in the Nurses’ Health Study are of European ancestry. The study’s lead author, Qi Sun of the Harvard School of Public Health, told Patch that more data would be needed to determine if the results hold true for other groups. He also notes that the women in the study who were light to moderate drinkers may have also shared other characteristics that lead to better health.  
At least 20 percent of the population wouldn’t be able to stop at one drink, observes Daniel J. Headrick, M.D., of Mission Pacific Coast Recovery in Laguna Beach. A specialist in addiction medicine, Dr. Headrick describes “the potato chip effect” where a genetic attraction to alcohol doesn’t allow stopping at one.

“Eighty percent of the world can get away with having just one drink,” he says. For the other 20 percent, “one drink triggers quite a different reaction in the brain,” he explains.

Alcohol spurs the production of extra endorphins in the brain for that 20 percent of the population, a results he calls “a wow effect.” People who don’t feel that that effect can stop at one drink, but if you’re susceptible to the “wow” sensation, it makes you want a second drink, Dr. Headrick says.

The bottom line to avoid hitting bottom in an attempt to age successfully: one drink a day may be helpful, provided you take up this habit in your 50s or 60s and not sooner. If you or anyone in your family tends toward that “wow” effect that makes you want to keep going after one drink, stick to 15 to 30 minutes of daily exercise—you’ll reap more powerful health benefits.

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