One of the most contentious issues in the vast literature about alcohol consumption has been the consistent finding that those who don't drink tend to die sooner than those who do. The standard Alcoholics Anonymous explanation for this finding is that many of those who show up as abstainers in such research are actually former hard-core drunks who had already incurred health problems associated with drinking.
But a new paper in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research suggests that - for reasons that aren't entirely clear - abstaining from alcohol does tend to increase one's risk of dying, even when you exclude former problem drinkers. The most shocking part is abstainers' mortality rates are higher than those of heavy drinkers.
Moderate drinking, which is defined as one to three drinks per day, is associated with the lowest mortality rates in alcohol studies. Moderate alcohol use (especially when the beverage of choice is red wine) is thought to improve heart health.
But why would abstaining from alcohol lead to a shorter life? Even after controlling for nearly all imaginable variables - socioeconomic status, level of physical activity, number of close friends, quality of social support and so on - the researchers (a six-member team led by psychologist Charles Holahan of the University of Texas at Austin) found that over a 20-year period, mortality rates were highest for those who were not current drinkers, regardless of whether they used to be alcoholics, second highest for heavy drinkers and lowest for moderate drinkers.
One important reason is that alcohol lubricates so many social interactions, and social interactions are vital for maintaining mental and physical health.
The authors of the new paper are careful to note that even if drinking is associated with longer life, it can be dangerous: it can impair your memory severely and it can lead to nonlethal falls and other mishaps (like, say, cheating on your spouse in a drunken haze) that can screw up your life. So the new study provides the strongest evidence yet that moderate drinking is not only fun but good for you.