Cheers, Ladies! A Drink a Day May Mean Good Health in Older Age

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In case you needed another reason to raise your glass, a new study links moderate drinking in midlife to better health in older age in women.

Researchers found that compared with women who didn’t drink at all, those who reported having one or two drinks a day in middle age were significantly more likely to maintain good health as they aged. The researchers defined good health as being free of major chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes or heart disease, and having no physical disability, cognitive decline or mental health problems.

The study, led by Harvard researchers, included data on 13,894 women who participated in the long-running Nurses’ Health Study. The volunteers filled out surveys about their eating and drinking habits in midlife (around age 58). The researchers then compared their answers to the women’s health at age 70.

They found that women who drank up to one alcoholic beverage per day in midlife were 19% more likely than nondrinkers to enjoy good health at 70. Women who had one to two drinks a day had even better odds, a 28% greater chance of good health. Even those who drank less, a third of a glass of alcohol a day — or just two drinks a week — boosted their chances of overall good health by 11%.

The study found that it wasn’t just the amount but the pattern of drinking that mattered: women who spread their alcohol consumption over five to seven days, for example, were more likely to maintain good health than those who drank the same amount of booze in three or four days — and both groups were more likely to be healthy at age 70 than women who didn’t drink at all.

But those ladies who squeezed their drinking into just one or two days a week were no better off when it came to overall health than nondrinkers.

The researchers defined one drink as 15 g (or just over half an ounce) of alcohol — the equivalent of a can of beer or a small glass of wine. But the findings don’t suggest that drinking is good for everyone, or that nondrinkers should change their habits. Indeed, other lifestyle behaviors, such as keeping a healthy weight, eating right and exercising, are more likely to encourage good health than drinking.

Studies like the current research can’t prove that drinking alcohol causes good health, just that there’s an association. As Health.com reported:

Unlike clinical trials that compare an active drug with placebo pills, studies like these can’t prove that alcohol has a direct effect on long-term health. [Lead author Dr. Qi] Sun [of the Harvard School of Public Health] and his colleagues took into account more than a dozen health and demographic factors that could influence both drinking and aging (such as diet, smoking, educational attainment, and family history of disease), but it’s still possible that the moderate drinkers differed in key ways from their peers.

People who drink in moderation “look systematically different than those who…either binge drink or don’t drink,” says [Dr. Arun] Karlamangla, [an associate professor of geriatrics at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine] who has researched alcohol consumption and disability but was not involved in the new study. And those subtle differences — which might include their social life, eating and exercise habits, and stress levels at home and on the job — may influence overall health independent of alcohol consumption, he adds.

Previous research has also associated moderate drinking with reduced risks of Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease in men and women.

Th new study was published in PLoS Medicine.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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