Red Wine Blues

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Red wine has long been touted as the “healthy” alcoholic beverage, a key component of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, and possibly a reason why French people live as long as they do. Of course, consuming alcohol carries known risks (which can include addiction and abuse, as well as higher blood triglyceride levels in some people) as well as potential benefits (moderate drinking has been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular problems, dementia, and Type 2 diabetes). But red wine has long been believed to carry additional benefits not seen in other alcoholic beverages. For example, as we noted in a Diabetes Flashpoints post in 2012, drinking red wine was found in a small study to reduce insulin resistance more than drinking an equivalent amount of gin.

Researchers have long suspected that the main reason for red wine’s positive health impact is that it contains high levels of polyphenols, chemicals associated with numerous health benefits including reduced inflammation and cancer resistance. Probably the most widely studied, and loudly trumpeted, polyphenol found in red wine is resveratrol, which is also found in lower concentrations in chocolate and certain berries. Among numerous other studies, one from 2006, published in the journal Nature, found that middle-aged mice on a high-calorie diet exhibited fitness characteristics of younger, skinnier mice — and lived longer — when they consumed very high levels of resveratrol in their diet.


But, of course, humans are not mice, and many promising findings in mice have been found not to apply to humans. So a new study sought to find out whether resveratrol in the diet had any effect on the longevity of older human beings. Published last week by the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, the study examined 783 men and women ages 65 and above in the region of Chianti, Italy. As part of the study, which lasted nine years, participants gave urine samples from which researchers measured resveratrol consumption, and their health status was measured in a number of ways. According to a HealthDay article on the study, 34.3% of participants died during the nine-year period. In addition, 27.2% developed heart disease, and 4.6% developed cancer. Overall, participants had resveratrol-rich diets, as indicated by their urine samples. But there was no beneficial outcome seen among participants who consumed the most of it. In fact, the quarter of participants who consumed the most resveratrol were slightly more likely to die than the quarter who consumed the least of it. No statistically significant difference in any outcome (death, heart disease, cancer, inflammation, etc.) was seen at any level of resveratrol consumption.

It’s possible, of course, that red wine has health benefits this study couldn’t detect, for a number of possible reasons. Nine years may not be long enough to measure red wine’s health benefits, or it may be possible that the benefits would be more detectable in a younger or more diverse population. And, of course, it’s possible that regular red-wine drinkers know about its health benefits and therefore make less of an effort to be healthy in other ways, so that they are no more likely overall to be healthy than their wine-shy peers. But one conclusion seems clear from this study: The health benefits of drinking red wine aren’t so overwhelming that it can be said to dramatically increase longevity or reduce disease.

Do you drink red wine regularly? If so, did you take it up for health-related reasons? Does this study, or would others like it, make you reconsider your beverage choices? What factors have shaped your decision to drink, or not to drink, alcohol? Leave a comment below!

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