Drinking Benefits: How Alcohol May Affect Longevity And Heart Health

Cheers! Raising A Glass To Longevity, Starbucks and Worms

Can alcohol increase your lifespan? If you're a worm, the answer appears to be "yes," according to a new study conducted by chemists at UCLA. While the worms -- known as Caenorhabditis elegans -- typically live for 15 days, their life spans increased to 20 to 40 days when they ingested very small amounts of ethanol -- the same type of alcohol found in your favorite wine, beer or cocktail.

The researchers are not sure why the ethanol affected the worms' life spans, but they found that only a very small amount of ethanol was required -- exposing worms to an increased level of ethanol did not increase their longevity. So why should we care about some slinky creatures that live in the dirt and feast on bacteria? They're more like us than you think: Around half of these worms' genes correspond with human genes.

According to a statement by UCLA:

"The research raises, but does not answer, the question of whether tiny amounts of ethanol can be helpful for human health. Whether this mechanism has something in common with findings that moderate alcohol consumption in humans may have a cardiovascular health benefit is unknown, but (Steven Clarke, senior author of the study) said the possibilities are intriguing."

Speaking of cardiovascular health and alcohol, you may have another reason to raise your glass. A recent study by Spanish researchers found that the alcohol in red wine and the grapes themselves may both be beneficial for the heart. The small study, which only followed 67 men, analyzed the levels of chemicals affecting inflammation and plaque on artery walls after the men drank red wine, red wine without alcohol, and gin. When the man drank the alcoholic red wine and gin, levels of chemicals that reduce inflammation increased, and when the men drank the non-alcoholic red wine, levels of chemicals that reduce plaque increased.

"Thus, both grapes and [alcohol] are good for the heart," said Ramon Estruch, MD, PhD -- one of the researchers from Hospital Clinic, Villarroel in Barcelona -- via email to WebMD. Estruch told WebMD that the combination of the alcohol and the grapes likely yield a greater benefit than drinking each separately.

Of course, just because alcohol may have some health benefits doesn't mean you should start guzzling booze to increase your longevity and protect your heart. And moderate drinking alone may not be the answer either. A regular pattern of moderate drinking may actually be the key to reaping the health benefits of alcohol according to Canadian researchers who reviewed studies on the topic for the past 30 years. The "National Post" reports on the findings of this review:

The bottom line is that moderate volumes of alcohol do seem associated with fewer heart attacks and other cardiac illness -- but only if that volume is spread out evenly, with one or two drinks a day, rather than clumped together in sporadic binges, says Jurgen Rehm, lead author of the study just published in the journal Addiction.

That caveat -- that it is not just low average consumption that might help, but a regular, modest pattern of drinking -- is a major one, since less than 5% of North Americans are estimated to follow such consistent drinking patterns, noted Prof. Rehm in an interview.

"If you want to reap all those benefits, you have to drink it almost as a medicine," said the head of social and epidemiological research at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). "The problem is that, a lot of the lay messages deal with alcohol as if it has only one dimension, ie. how much you drink overall. From a scientific perspective, alcohol has at least two dimensions: first, how much do you drink overall and, secondly, how do you drink it."

Another question you may start asking yourself is where you drink it, especially with the recent news that certain Starbucks locations plan to serve wine and beer to their java-addicted clientele. Pretty soon, you may be able to sip your life longer and heart healthier with a glass of red wine and a side of that amazing Starbucks pumpkin bread.

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