Alcohol, Tradition, and Health: How are They Connected?

The moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with better health and greater longevity. That’s in comparison to either abstinence or heavy drinking. However, the strong temperance tradition in the US leads many people to resist this medically established fact. This reflects how alcohol, tradition, and health are closely related.

alcohol, tradition, and healthSante. Skoal. To your health. It’s how we toast each other with “the water of life” from Scotland. Or when we take a “little wine for the stomach’s sake.” The Russians say it with a simple proverb. It’s “Drink a glass of schnapps after your soup and you steal a ruble from the doctor.”

There’s a long folk tradition in societies that use alcohol successfully. It says that alcoholic beverages bring pleasure to a gathering and lift our spirits as well. And it says alcohol can also improve our health.

Moderate Drinkers

That belief is more than folk wisdom. The evidence is clear. In short, moderate drinking is associated with better health and longevity. That’s in comparison to either abstaining or drinking heavily. For example, we now know that

  • alcohol, tradition, and healthModerate drinkers tend to live longer.  One study shows that moderate drinkers have a 21% to 28% lower risk of death from all causes than abstainers. Another study, of 12,000 physicians, found that moderate drinkers had the lowest risk of death from all causes during the 13 year study
  • Moderate drinkers tend to enjoy better health. One nation-wide survey in the U.S. found that daily moderate drinkers had many fewer acute hospitalizations. And a Canadian study found that daily moderate drinkers had 15% less disability than the general population.
  • Moderate drinkers are less likely to suffer heart attacks.  One researcher reviewed the accumulated studies on moderate drinking and heart attacks. He found that having one or two drinks a day was highly beneficial. It greatly reduces “the chances of suffering cardiac death.” In fact, he concluded that “We don’t have any drugs that are as good as alcohol.”
  • Moderate drinkers suffer fewer incidents of a great many other diseases and health problems. These include stroke, hypertension, prostate cancer, erectile dysfunction, Alzheimer’s disease, and many more. Even the common cold. For more, visit Alcohol and Health: Medical Findings. 

Impact of Temperance Tradition

Despite the evidence, a great many Americans still don’t understand the health benefits of moderate drinking. In fact, one poll by ABC News found that more than half of the public doesn’t see the connection. And more than a third think that moderate drinking is actually bad for a person’s health.

We can attribute that misunderstanding, in part, to another cultural tradition in the US. That’s the long temperance tradition in this country. It demonizes alcohol and drinking, especially spirits.

alcohol, tradition, and healthWe see that tradition at work. For instance, in the reluctance of many people to acknowledge the health benefits of moderate drinking. This even includes many government officials. And many who do acknowledge the benefits want to attribute them to something other than alcohol. Or they want to limit the benefits to one kind of beverage. For example, only to red wine. (See The Red Wine Health Myth.)

The truth is that the benefits come from the substance alcohol. Moreover, they come from using it in moderation. The media attention a few years ago to the so-called “French Paradox” led to a great misperception that the health benefits are limited to red wine, and that simply isn’t the case. You get equivalent benefits from the moderate consumption of spirits and beer.

Is there a way for us to overcome our confusion and ambivalence about alcohol in this country? I think so. A good place to start is by paying attention to cultures outside our own. Specifically ones that widely use alcohol with few problems. They include Italian, Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, and Jews. We can benefit a great deal by learning from the experience of these successful groups.

Cultural Keys

There are three keys to the successful use of alcohol in these groups.

  1. Viewing alcohol as a neutral substance. It’s neither good nor bad. What’s important is how it’s used.
  2. Providing two acceptable options for alcohol use. One is abstinence. The other is moderation. But successful societies never condone or permit abuse.
  3. Learning about drinking from an early age at home.

In short, to enjoy the health benefits of moderate drinking, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. All we have to do is open our eyes to see what works. And then to have the courage to reject what doesn’t work.

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Note

This website is informational only. Thus it makes no suggestions about drinking alcohol, tradition, and health.