While too much alcohol can lead to addiction and other problems, decades of research have connected low and moderate drinking to health benefits, from heart fitness to better cognition.
Let’s revisit some of the most common positive effects attributed to alcohol over the years and check whether they’re still supported by hard data.
A 1997 study showed no cognitive effect, positive or negative, from alcohol use. As early as 2011, however, long-term research began to show that moderate social drinking could be linked to lower rates of dementia and cognitive decline.
A 2019 study showed higher levels of brain function in people who reported low to moderate drinking habits. With over two decades of data from almost 20,000 survey participants, the researchers discovered that people who drank low to moderate amounts of alcohol had better mental status, word recall and vocabulary than even non-drinkers.
However, a 2018 study in France found that alcohol use disorders were strongly linked with multiple forms of dementia. A different 2019 study showed benefits from frequent low-volume drinking, but also found indications that heavy drinking– even when done rarely — was associated with high dementia rates.
Taking these studies together, there appears to be a fine line between benefit and harm.
Research indicates that a little bit of alcohol can be a boon to your cardiovascular system. But, as with cognitive health, the benefits can quickly turn into risks, without moderation. In 2018, the Mayo Clinic published research that clearly demonstrates this pattern: People drinking low amounts of alcohol had lower rates of coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, stroke and even death. Higher levels increased the risks of cardiovascular problems.
The information is muddied by a 2016 meta-review that showed negative results, even for light drinkers. Low alcohol consumption could benefit some cardiovascular conditions, like coronary heart disease, but was tied to an increase in others, like stroke. High consumption was tied to major risks and no benefits.
It’s well known that antioxidants have a variety of benefits, like boosting cardiovascular health, lowering cancer risks and even protecting against the common cold. Research into the health effects of alcohol, which often contains antioxidants, dates back at least 25 years.
These days, it’s usually wine that is specifically hailed for positive health effects — and for good reason, since it’s high in antioxidants and can be tied to both lower cancer risk and a longer lifespan, according to a 2018 study. Going back a little further, a 1993 study in the American Journal of Public Health showed that people who consumed moderate amounts of alcohol were less likely to catch a cold. A 2002 report by Spanish scientists identified a significant chance of reduced cold symptoms in subjects who habitually drank wine.
Studies from 2005 and 2009 showed lower rates of type-2 diabetes in subjects who consumed small or moderate amounts of alcohol. Another study from 2017 showed similar results.
More recent research not only continues to show that light to moderate drinking helps limit the risk of type-2 diabetes, it also explains why. A 2019 meta-analysis broke the cardiovascular benefits into specific impacts — drinkers had lower triglycerides and insulin levels, along with better metabolic function. These effects translate to lower risk factors for diabetes.
How much drinking is light? In this case, it was 20 grams of alcohol or less a day. That’s roughly a can and a half of beer, a shot of vodka or a large glass of wine.
A 2006 study from Catholic University of Campobasso in Italy suggests that small amounts of alcohol taken over a long period of time, such as a can of beer or glass of wine with dinner, can be tied to longer lifespans. This is supported by other studies, such as those mentioned above in the sections on antioxidants and on heart health.
However, there is also evidence that alcohol consumption in general can put you at risk of adverse effects. A 2016 study showed that high alcohol intake was tied to higher rates of cancer and death. The risks were lower for light or infrequent drinkers but were still worse than for non-drinkers.
According to many recent studies, alcohol can offer health benefits when consumed in moderation. However, too much alcohol comes with a wide variety of risks. Your doctor will be able to offer personalized advice, so obtain a professional opinion before using alcohol to take advantage of any benefits.
Please remember that a variety of resources are available if you or someone you know is impacted by alcohol or other substance addiction.
Sean Marsala is a health writer based in Philadelphia, Pa. Passionate about technology, he can usually be found reading, browsing the internet and exploring virtual worlds.