Of course heavy drinking is unhealthy, but is it better to have one drink per day or not drink at all? The answer may depend on other lifestyle factors, such as people's reasons for not drinking.
Researchers recently followed a large group of people to see if light drinking helped people live longer than not drinking at all.
These researchers found that non-drinkers were just as healthy as light drinkers if they didn't smoke and had not had a previous drinking problem.
For this study, Richard G. Rogers, PhD, Director of the Population Program in the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, collected data on the life expectancies of different types of drinkers and non-drinkers.
Previous research has shown that heavy drinking can increase the risk of early death. But not drinking at all has been associated with an increased risk of death, based on prior data.
The researchers in this study set out to see why light drinkers have had a tendency to live longer than non-drinkers, especially considering that there are many different reasons why people choose to avoid alcohol. Light drinking was defined as averaging less than one drink per day.
Some of the physical benefits associated with light drinking have included lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, reduced inflammation and reduced stress and anxiety. However, alcohol contains unnecessary calories and has been suspected to increase the risk of certain types of cancer.
Dr. Rogers and colleagues used data from the National Health Interview Survey, which began in 1988. A total of 41,076 participants, all 21 years of age or older, were asked in great detail about their drinking habits or reasons for not drinking.
Of the participants, 18.9 percent had never been drinkers, 11.7 percent said they drank every once in a while, 18.7 percent had been former drinkers, and 50.5 percent said they currently drank. By 2006, a total of 10,421 participants had died.
Among the non-drinkers, 6.7 percent stated that they did not drink due to moral or religious reasons, and 43.4 percent said they didn't have much concern with the risk of falling into problem drinking patterns. Both types of non-drinkers also said that they disliked the taste of alcohol.
Most (87.8 percent) of the occasional drinkers claimed that they did not like the taste of alcohol, and 12.1 percent said they didn't drink very often because of their upbringing and/or religious reasons.
Former drinkers showed a little more diversity in their reasons for avoiding alcohol. Only 3.1 percent said they had been problem drinkers, but 12.9 percent had family members that were problem drinkers and/or were concerned that they might be problem drinkers themselves. And 83.9 percent cited health concerns as their reason for avoiding alcohol.
After making adjustments for gender, race/ethnicity and other lifestyle factors, the researchers found that current light drinkers had a similar life expectancy as those who didn't drink due to upbringing and/or religious reasons.
People who avoided drinking, or rarely drank, for reasons other than upbringing or religion had a 14 percent higher mortality (death) risk than light drinkers. And former problem drinkers had a 60 percent higher mortality risk compared to light drinkers.
Compared to light drinkers, people who averaged one to less than two drinks per day had a 16 percent higher mortality risk, and people who averaged two to less than three drinks per day had a 68 percent higher mortality risk. People who drank three or more drinks per day had twice the risk of death compared to light drinkers.
The researchers concluded that non-drinkers and light drinkers have similar life expectancies. Regardless of current drinking status, former problem drinkers and smokers were at a higher risk of early death.
"So this idea that nondrinkers always have higher mortality than light drinkers isn't true. You can find some groups of nondrinkers who have similar mortality risks to light drinkers," Dr. Rogers said in a press release.
"I think the idea that drinking could be somewhat beneficial seems like it's overstated. There may be other factors that lower mortality for light drinkers. It's not just the act of drinking," Dr. Rogers said.
This study was published in June in Population Research and Policy Review.
The Eunice Kennedy Shriver NICHD-funded University of Colorado Population Center provided administrative and computer support for this project, and the National Center for Health Statistics help with data collection. No conflicts of interest were reported.