After TIME.com ran my story about how moderate and even heavy drinking are both associated with living longer than average, lots of readers e-mailed me their skepticism. One limitation of the study I was writing about (here’s a pdf from the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research) is that the authors — who followed a group of drinkers for 20 years — could only speculate about the biological mechanism allowing those drinkers to live longer than the nondrinkers in the study. One possibility, for instance, is that alcohol use seems to be associated with heart health, particularly for those who consume red wine, which contains resveratrol.
Then I got an e-mail from David Foster of the Department of Biological Sciences at Hunter College in New York City. He referred me to a paper he got published earlier this year in the journal Cell Cycle. The paper offers another reason drinking is associated with longevity: it seems to shorten the lifespan of cancer cells. The presence of alcohol can inhibit a protein called mTOR (an abbreviation for a protein with a regal full name, “the mammalian target of rapamycin”; doesn’t that sound like the title of a great sci-fi novel?), which is a critical regulator of signals that keep cancer cells alive.
Scientists have known for some time that suppressing mTOR can extend longevity; Foster says resveratrol and calorie restriction both seem to extend life because they suppress mTOR. Foster notes that alcohol can reduce stress, something the authors of the other paper also mention.
But there is of course a caveat, one you may have seen last night on Mad Men: too much alcohol can harm your quality of life even as it extends it. As Foster told me, “In principle, higher levels of alcohol would work better, but of course there is a point where there is a tradeoff with liver and behavioral problems.”
In other words, if Don Draper can barely get through a meeting without a drink, who cares how long he lives?