The Challenge of Objectivity About Alcohol Risks

Man with a Glass of WineObjectivity about the risks of drinking alcohol is not easy to find. Just like sweet beverages, alcohol has been part of human culture and a source of pleasure for thousands of years. An awareness of its health risks also has a very long history.

Because humans can rationalize just about anything, we embrace assurances from thin evidence that moderate drinking might actually be good for us.

But it’s not, says a new study in JAMA Network Open. In fact, researchers found that “alcohol consumption at all levels was associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Not a Linear Relationship

It’s worth noting that the relationship is not linear. Light consumption carries minimal (not zero) risks. Heavier drinking brings exponential increases in cardiovascular risks, say the authors of this study.

To reach these conclusions with such clarity, Kiran Biddinger and colleagues conducted a Mendelian randomization analysis of data from the UK Biobank. This was important because it allowed for researchers to separate the effects of alcohol itself from lifestyle factors that correlate with different levels of alcohol use.

It turns out that moderate drinkers tend to have other health-related behaviors that more than offset the health risks of their relatively low levels of alcohol consumptions. This is why you may have read that drinking a little red wine may help with your heart health.

Impact of Alcohol in the Pandemic

While it’s not at all clear that the prevalence of adult obesity has gone up in the pandemic, it is clear that the harms of alcohol use have. In fact, alcohol-related deaths jumped by 25 percent in the first year of the pandemic. This is because excessive drinking rose in response to the stress of coping with the pandemic, including lockdowns. At the same time, getting access to treatment for alcohol abuse became more difficult.

The dramatic rise in alcohol-related deaths is utterly unsurprising in these circumstances.

Rational Choices and Rationalization

This is not to say that choosing to enjoy alcohol in moderation is an irrational choice. It is, in fact, like any other decision about risk and reward. A glass of wine, a serving of beer, or other spirits can be a source of pleasure – something that activates the brain’s reward system.

But rationalization is something different. That happens when we use flimsy evidence to explain away the risks. We tell ourselves alcohol can enhance our health. Or maybe prevent diabetes. It sounds good and it supports a choice to do something we want to do anyway.

At the end of the day, rationalization is merely an exercise in self deception. Modest alcohol consumption has minimal health risks – but the risk is not zero. Make your choices and take your risks.

Click here for the Biddinger study and here for further perspective. For the study of alcohol-related deaths in the pandemic, click here.

Man with a Glass of Wine, painting by Amedeo Modigliani / WikiArt

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March 30, 2022

3 Responses to “The Challenge of Objectivity About Alcohol Risks”

  1. March 30, 2022 at 8:34 am, Allen Browne said:

    Or, as my father used to say”Pay your money and take your choice”

  2. March 30, 2022 at 9:34 am, John DiTraglia said:

    Sometimes denial is a good treatment.

  3. March 30, 2022 at 4:41 pm, Neva Cochran said:

    Thanks for this excellent assessment. I find it so interesting that both health professionals and consumers will demonize sugar-sweetened soda like it’s poison but I rarely hear or read any outcry about alcohol’s dangers to health and safety.