Yes, tonight is a special occasion. But I don’t need a special reason to toast one thing or another every single night of the week—nor do my regular girlfriends. This daily ritual comes as naturally as brushing my teeth. In my pursuit of pleasure, a ridiculously good glass of wine or the sting of that first sip of an extra-dry martini (straight up with olives, please) provides a soothing antidote to the slings and arrows of life that can’t be duplicated by pop.
“Here’s to good health!” I blurt as we clink glasses at the bar. Forget apples. I’ve often told myself red wine is what’ll keep my doctor away.
Since I eat right, take my vitamins, see a wellness doctor, exercise daily—not to mention am a self-proclaimed hypochondriac who seeks professional advice on every ache and bad vibration—I’ve learned to think of wine in moderation as part of my conscientious routine. Each time the cork slinks out of the bottle, I convince myself that wine is an elixir—all that resveratrol in grapes is the wonder drug for my senior ticker. Haven’t you read that women who drink live longer than those who don’t? And what about those gorgeous European women? They imbibe at lunch and dinner and live years longer than most Americans.
Even my endocrinologist gives my wine consumption two thumbs up. She says 70 percent of bone health is hereditary anyway, so I shouldn’t get hung up on the effects of cabernet on my skeleton.
Look hard enough and there’s a “health” story boasting the benefits of booze for everything from weight loss to Alzheimer’s prevention. There’s also the marital plus. A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan says couples who drink together, stay together. Evidently, it’s a buzzy bonding thing. They spoke to nearly 3,000 couples and found that marriages between couples over 50 years old were healthier when both partners’ drinking habits were the same. When one drinks Perrier and the other pinot noir, however, it’s harder to be on the same page. (Bottoms up, lovebirds.)
Considering all the pro-drinking news, it’s tempting for me to shrug off negative stories about alcohol. But my cavalier attitude is shifting since I discovered newly public research and read a sobering book, Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston, last month. Will I switch to diet soda because of what I learned? Probably not, but I am reconsidering that second glass.
Some of my findings (I sipped wine as I let this stuff soak in): Moderate drinkers (seven drinks weekly for women) don’t live longer than people who abstain, according to Tim Stockwell, director of the Center for Addictions Research of British Columbia. He reviewed 87 previous studies and data from four million people comparing abstainers to moderate drinkers. Three-quarters of those studies made the error of including unhealthy former drinkers with lifetime abstainers thus making moderate drinkers look healthier by comparison.
When Stockwell excluded former drinkers from the abstainers’ pool and whole-cloth studies that didn’t define abstainers as lifelong teetotalers, results changed dramatically. Moderate drinkers no longer had a lower risk of mortality. That honor went to those who consume between one drink a year at a bar mitzvah, say, to three drinks a month.
“Alcohol is a neurotoxic, carcinogenic and addictive intoxicant,” Stockwell says. “We can’t rule out that some alcohol prevents heart disease but, if so, this is more than balanced by the extent to which it causes cancers and other problems. There is no entirely safe level of drinking.”
Closer to home, Dr. Suzanne Jan de Beur, associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and director of endocrinology at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, dispels my euphoric European drinking myth.
“Women in Spain and Italy do not have lower rates of osteoporosis,” Jan de Beur says. “Scandinavian countries have higher rates and so is their alcohol consumption.”
(Sob! This only makes me want a drink I probably shouldn’t have.)
Other factors play into why European women have better mortality rates than we do—they drink with meals, eat healthier, walk more and are not as obese.
“More than a drink a day starts increasing mortality from breast cancer,” says Dr. Peter Shields, member of the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Scientific Review Panel. “If a woman has a family history of breast cancer or the BRCA gene, she shouldn’t drink at all.”
(Okay, as the data hits home, my desire for a big glass of red is dampened.)
“Alcohol marketers have ‘found’ women in a new way since the 1990s, with products and advertising aimed at women proliferating,” says David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Drink author Ann Dowsett Johnston agrees. She says alcohol marketers are targeting women by creating names like MommyJuice, Cupcake, Happy Bitch and Skinnygirl. (Remember Virginia Slims? Some experts wonder if alcohol is the new tobacco.) Dowsett Johnston says the more professional and the more educated, the more likely a woman is to drink regularly. Female drinkers are driving sales growth in much of the developed world.
Men and women are not created equal—hormonally and metabolically, that is. On average, women have a higher percentage of body fat than men. Since body fat contains little water, there is less to dilute the alcohol women consume. Add to that fact a lower level of a key metabolizing enzyme—called alcohol dehydrogenase—which helps the body break down and eliminate alcohol, and it’s insult to injury. The difficult equation means a larger proportion of what women drink enters their bloodstream. And the gender disadvantage doesn’t stop there.
“Women become dependent faster, thanks to our chemistry, with shorter exposure to alcohol,” adds Dowsett Johnston. More bad news: “Heavy drinkers of both sexes run the risk of a fatal hemorrhagic stroke—but the odds are five times higher for women.”
This conversation isn’t necessarily about alcoholism, however—only a small percentage of drinkers are alcoholics. It’s about risky drinking, and a few glasses of wine every day is risky, according to Dowsett Johnston. And people can become dependent without being alcoholics.
Gosh, sorry to have sobered up so fully, but my research is what it is.
Think drugs are killers? There are more deaths due to alcohol—in fact, drink is the third leading cause of preventable deaths after smoking and a combination of a bad diet and inactivity, Dowsett Johnston notes.
“We talk about the dangers of smoking, or trans fats or even tanning beds, but we seem to ignore the dangers of a few drinks a day for women,” Dowsett Johnston says, noting that the daily-glass-of-wine-is-beneficial health myth applies only if you’re a 40-year-old male couch potato.
So, am I supposed to give up the habit I love best?
“It’s all about balancing different advice with quality of life and risk,” says Kala Visvanathan, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center.
“We know alcohol is associated with an increased breast cancer risk, but we see women who do everything right and still get cancer,” she adds. “We know that as you increase the amount you drink that risk increases, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drink; just drink in moderation. Even with women at higher risk, we don’t say they can’t drink at all.”
(Did you hear that pop? I’m opening a bottle for half a glass.)
Visvanathan and her team are working to identify different types of genetics, specifically the inherited ones associated with high risk of cancer and other situations in which there is interaction between genes and alcohol—because there are genes that influence the way alcohol is metabolized.
“We’re trying to get better at identifying an individual’s risk of cancer,” Visvanathan says. “Known risk factors explain 50 to 60 percent of cancers but not all. We used to think of each disease separately, but as we get more cancer survivors—particularly breast cancer survivors—we are thinking of diseases together. A woman who is a cancer survivor is at risk of getting another cancer but also at risk of getting cardiovascular disease, for example. There is a cardio risk model, there is a cancer risk model and there are a lot of shared risk factors.”
Risk. That’s the heart of this issue. Since I have no known risk factors in my family history, I’m following Visvanathan’s advice: Everything in moderation from chocolate to cabernet. The bottom line is, life is a risk. Some teetotalers do everything right and get nasty diseases. Others drink in excess and live into their late 90s.
For me, enjoying a little vino is a risk I’m currently willing to take.