Weighing the Benefits and Risks of Alcohol

Light to moderate use of alcohol may reduce your risk for heart disease and other cardiovascular system illnesses, according to recent studies. On the other hand, there is evidence linking alcohol and breast cancer.

For many people, the decision whether to drink alcohol has never been more complicated.

The following facts can help you decide whether to drink or not. While reviewing this article, remember that if you do not currently drink, you should not begin drinking for the slight health benefits that alcohol might afford.

Okay in moderation

Evidence that moderate drinking—defined as no more than one drink a day for non-pregnant women and all people older than 65, and two drinks a day for younger men—can have coronary benefits continues to grow. (A standard drink is 12 ounces of beer, 4 to 5 ounces of wine or 1 to 1-1/2 ounces of hard liquor.)

Alcohol helps the cardiovascular system by raising levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol, which, in turn, helps clean clogged arteries by removing plaque from artery walls. Alcohol also makes blood less sticky and less likely to clot. Several studies suggest that in pre- and postmenopausal women, light to moderate alcohol consumption may increase estrogen in the blood, and this may help protect against heart disease.

Most coronary benefits come from the alcohol itself, researchers believe. In addition, specific antioxidants found in red wine may provide additional protection.

Alcohol and weight

Alcohol can pack on extra pounds in certain people.  A 2010 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that normal weight women who drink in moderation have a lower risk of obesity and seem to gain less weight than those who abstain. There are 7 calories per gram in alcohol, and that translates to between 100 and 150 calories for the alcohol in a typical beer, wine or spirits.

Alcohol and brain function

Some researchers believe that moderate drinking may protect blood vessels in the brain in a similar way to how it protects blood vessels in the heart against heart disease. A 2009 study found that moderate drinking (8-14 drinks per week) in the elderly was associated with a significantly decreased risk for dementia compared to abstainers. Importantly, however, is that elderly individuals who already had some level of cognitive decline, and who used any amount of alcohol, had significantly faster rates of further decline.

Risky in excess

Though the news about alcohol's benefits is exciting, the downside of drinking also is well-documented. For healthy people with chronic diseases, or risk factors for physical or mental problems, the risks seem to be greatest with heavy drinking. (Heavy drinking is defined as having more than two drinks a day over an extended period of time if you are a man younger than 65, or more than one drink a day if you are a woman, or a man 65 or older.) Be sure to consider the risks:

  • Chronic heavy drinking can cause potentially fatal conditions, including damage to the brain, heart or liver; high blood pressure; diabetes; stroke; alcohol dependence; and chronic depression. Women have a higher risk of developing problems from drinking, because the alcohol in a woman's bloodstream usually reaches a higher level than in a man's, even when both drink the same amount.

  • Chronic heavy drinking increases the risk for osteoporosis. This is especially true for young women, whose bones are still developing. Chronic heavy alcohol use in adulthood can harm bone health.

  • Heavy drinking is associated with dangerous behaviors, such as smoking and drinking while driving.

  • Drinking even a small amount of alcohol while pregnant can cause learning and behavioral problems, and birth defects, including mental retardation. Do not drink while you are pregnant.

  • Alcohol is associated with increased risk for some cancers, including those of the lung, liver, breast, throat, mouth, larynx and esophagus.

  • More than 150 prescription and over-the-counter medications interact negatively with alcohol. It's important to pay careful attention to the potential for an alcohol-medication interaction. For example, three or more alcohol drinks while taking acetaminophen (Tylenol and found in other medications) can increase your risk for liver damage or produce acute liver failure.

  • Heavy alcohol use is known to affect memory and may increase the risk for Alzheimer's disease. This risk is higher in women because they are more vulnerable than men to brain damage from alcohol use. Although studies have shown an association between certain modifiable lifestyle factors such as abstaining from alcohol use and a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease, the National Institutes of Health says that researchers still aren’t sure whether these factors can actually prevent the disease.

Your Guide to Alcohol Abuse

Take a Personalized Health Test