Drink to Long Life? Maybe Not.

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The recent news that a substance in red wine might help protect mice against obesity -- and help extend their lives -- has a lot of corks popping. But before you start imbibing more, you may want to take a closer look at the facts.

First, scientists are quick to note that the possible benefits of resveratrol, a substance found in red wine (and in peanuts), have not yet been proven. Even if resveratrol lives up to its promise in humans, the mice study suggests that it would take high doses to protect against obesity. So, to reap its purported benefits, you would probably need to drink cases of red wine, which would have obvious drawbacks. (More on that below.)

Some stores are already reporting brisk sales of dietary supplements with resveratrol. Even a few scientists are jumping on the bandwagon. "I actually told my mother she should take it," Stephen L. Helfand, who studies the molecular genetics of aging at Brown University, told The Washington Post's Rob Stein. "I even went out and got her some."

But there's no guarantee that resveratrol supplements have what they say on the label, because dietary supplements don't undergo the same scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration as prescription drugs. Plus, you'd need to ante up about $40 for a one-month supply.

Whether that's a smart idea isn't known. Safe and effective doses in humans have not been established, and there could be downsides to taking resveratrol. Preliminary studies point to some cancer protection, but there's also evidence that it may increase the risk of breast cancer -- a reminder that tinkering with nutritional substances can be complex.

So with the holidays and all those tempting libations ahead, where does that leave us?

First, the benefits of consuming alcohol aren't limited to red wine. Studies point to a lower overall risk of death, protection against heart disease and possibly increased bone density from drinking all types of alcoholic beverages.

Sounds good, doesn't it? But alcohol's benefits depend on your age and gender. Men and older women -- those past menopause -- reap the most health rewards.

How much you drink also matters. Any health benefits of alcohol come solely from low or moderate drinking -- that is, no more than one drink per day for women, two for men. One of the latest reports, from a study of 13,000 adults in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, found that moderate drinking boosted bone density in men and increased it slightly in post-menopausal women. Binge drinking produced no such benefits.

Compared with nondrinkers, people who drink one to two alcoholic beverages daily appear to have a lower incidence of heart disease. That's because moderate drinking increases levels of the protective cholesterol known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Last month, a study published by researchers in Barcelona concluded that moderate alcohol consumption, regardless of whether you sip wine, beer or distilled spirits, cuts the risk of nonfatal heart attacks.

But there are few, if any, health reasons for younger women to drink and plenty of reasons for them to abstain -- aside from the risks of addiction and abuse that also affect men. Compared with nondrinkers, women who consume one drink a day have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer.

There's no safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, when it's known to cause birth defects. For that reason, alcohol is not advised for women who want to conceive. Nor is it advised for women who are breast-feeding.

Drinking regularly can also pile on pounds, since at seven calories per gram, alcohol rivals fat for calories. Those extra inches around the middle also help increase the risks of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

That's why after an extensive review, the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended that alcohol be consumed only in moderation.

According to the committee, a drink consists of five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. Calories range from 82 for an ounce of 100-proof vodka to 150 for 12 ounces of beer. Mixers, of course, add more calories.

Forget about being a teetotaler during the week and drinking more booze on the weekends. Not only can binge drinking be fatal, but an Australian study found that more than nine drinks in one day doubled the risk of heart attacks in men -- not exactly a health benefit.

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