Alcohol: Raise a Glass or Abstain?

It may seem like a good idea to indulge in a glass or two of wine every once in awhile. After all, alcohol’s benefits to the heart have been touted for years, so it can't hurt, can it? Growing scientific evidence suggests that moderate alcohol consumption may sometimes have a beneficial or protective effect on our health. Anything more than moderate, however, begins to have adverse effects.

The U.S. government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, defines moderate consumption as no more than two alcoholic beverages a day for healthy adult men and no more than one drink a day for women. (One drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1 1/2 ounces of 80-proof liquor.) If you're over 65, you may want to heed the National Institutes of Health's advice for all older adults: No more than one drink a day.

Based on the latest research, here are some ways moderate alcohol use can affect your health, for better or worse:

  • Heart. Many researchers agree that alcohol plays a role in lowering risk of heart attack and stroke. What's more, a 2007 study showed a possible link between moderate drinking and less incidence of lower-extremity arterial disease in older adults. If you have high blood pressure, though, it's best not to drink—drinking long term can raise blood pressure further.
  • Brain. New research suggests that alcohol may help ward off dementia. Scientists analyzed 143 studies and determined that light to moderate drinkers may have a reduced risk of dementia and cognitive decline.
  • Metabolism. As we age, the rate at which alcohol is broken down in the body slows and lowers our alcohol tolerance. So the same drink that didn't bother you 20 years ago may now cause slurred speech or instability.
  • Meds. Mixing alcohol with prescription or over-the-counter drugs can lessen some medications' effectiveness—and it can be dangerous, too. Just one drink can cause serious side effects when taken with drugs such as aspirin, antihistamines, sleeping pills, antidepressants and painkillers.
  • Cancer risk. The American Cancer Society warns that even a few drinks a day may be associated with an increased breast cancer risk in women. Evidence suggests that your breast cancer risk increases as your alcohol consumption increases. This is especially true among women who drink and don't get enough folate. Folic acid supplements may help reduce your risk.
  • Behavior. Your reaction time can be slowed with moderate drinking. In a small study, older adults who had one to three drinks—and whose blood alcohol levels were still under the legal driving limit—were more likely to trip over obstacles than those who didn't drink.

If you drink moderately, you may be able to safely imbibe and gain some benefits as long as you don't have health conditions such as liver disease or heart failure or plan to drive. On the other hand, if you don't drink, don't start. The same benefits of alcohol can be achieved with less risk through a healthy lifestyle.

Source: Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 08 Jul 2013

Last Modified: 08 Jul 2013