If we drink temperately, and small draughts at a time, the wine distills upon our lungs like sweetest morning dew. --Socrates
IT PROBABLY would come as no surprise to Socrates. Yet one of the principal research findings that will be presented tomorrow at a national symposium at the University of California Medical School at San Francisco, cosponsored by the Wine Institute, is certain to be provocative and controversial. Doctors have concluded from a 10-year study that persons who consume two or fewer drinks of wine or other alcoholic beverages daily appear to live longer than persons who abstain from drinking entirely.
Of 2,015 patients of the Bay Area's Kaiser-Permanente Medical Center who were studied over a 10-year period, persons reporting daily consumption of two or fewer drinks had a mortality rate of 6.3 percent. Abstainers and users of three to five drinks daily had a mortality rate approximately 50 percent higher (8.8 to 9.3 percent) and the heaviest drinkers (6 or more daily) had a doubled mortality rate (12.7 percent).
The director of the study -- Kaiser's Chief of Cardiology, Dr. Arthur L. Klatsky -- attributes the lower mortality of temperate drinkers (compared with abstainers) at least in part to the proven beneficial effects of moderate amounts of alcohol in controlling diseases of the heart and blood vessels. In the 10-year study, the cardiovascular death rate was higher among nondrinkers (4.4 percent) than even heavy drinkers (3.8 percent). Nondrinkers also fared worse than the temperate drinkers (2 or fewer daily) in cancer-related and even accidental deaths.
Until recently, it was presumed that temperate drinkers enjoyed better health because they were found to be better educated than abstainers or heavy drinkers, and presumably took better care of themselves.
Some researchers, however, including symposium speaker Dr. John P. Kane of the Cardiovascular Research Institute at UCSF, offer a different explanation for the death rate of abstainers. Temperate drinkers may have fewer heart attacks than nondrinkers because of the presence in alcohol of high-density lipoproteins (HDL's), which serve as a vascular Drano to unclog blood vessels. Nevertheless, there have been conflicting findings regarding the relationship between heavier alcohol use and coronary disease and the Kaiser study concludes merely that "abstinence from alcohol may be a minor coronary risk factor."
While the Kaiser study gives significant new credence to a belief the wine industry would encourage -- that temperate drinking actually promotes good health -- Klatsky concedes that further study is necessary. There have been inadequate data, he admits, to distinguish between persons who have one or two drinks a day and persons who drink less frequently. There also has been scant study of mortality data based on persons with different preferences as to alcoholic beverage.
In another controversial report to be delivered at the "Wine, Health & Society" symposium this weekend, a UCSF professor of obstetrics concludes that light drinking during pregnancy is "harmless to the fetus." Dr. Paul Scholten contends that no danger has been established to pregnant women from "light drinking," which is defined as less than one ounce of absolute alcohol per day (8 ounces of dry table wine or 2 cans of beer).
Scholten is strongly critical of the U.S. Surgeon General's Office and Planned Parenthood for giving "oversimplified advice" to pregnant women concerning the "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome." He contends that every known case of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome -- involving birth defects in children of drinking mothers -- has involved women who were chronic alcoholics, not social drinkers. In a University of Washington study group, he notes, some 75 percent of the women bearing FAS children died within five years of delivery.
Because the placenta does not act as a barrier to alcohol, the same blood alcohol level in the mother is reflected in the fetus. Since the organic acids, tannins and other components in wine cause it to have the least effect on blood alcohol levels, particularly when accompanying meals, Scholten concludes that wine taken with meals "would seem the safest drink." Although he believes that there is widespread support for such advice, he admits that some doctors are overly reluctant to advise their patients thus because of the sobering threat of malpractice actions.
The two-day medical symposium is co-sponsored by the Wine Institute, so particular attention will be focused on health benefits from products of the grape. Papers will be presented by various medical professors and research physicians on wine and nutrition, wine and geriatrics, and on wine's use in combatting various diseases.
Among the topics to be discussed are:
Wine as a substance which helps the absorption of many nutrients.
The use of wine as a diuretic in special diets. Wine has been useful as a diuretic for people on sodium restricted diets. In addition, alcohol, unlike sugar, may be absorbed without insulin, making it suitable for diabetics.
While doctors and even proselytizers from the Wine Institute concede that alcohol, like drugs, can be abused and that some patients show less tolerance than others, medical evidence is mounting that temperate consumption of wine can yield health benefits.
The day may now be closer when the age-old refrain of schoolchildren may be changed to: "A glass of wine a day keeps the doctor away."