Can alcohol consumption be good for your health? The answer is – it’s impossible to know. A recent study in the British Medical Journal says that many studies showing health benefits to alcohol are very probably wrong. The reason is that there are too many “confounding” factors when measuring alcohol-related questions for researchers to control.
And besides, many studies about the health benefits of alcohol lumped former drinkers and never drinkers into the same group, the study said. As any recovering alcoholic knows, that’s not quite correct. People who used to drink and stopped may have done so because of severe alcohol-related problems. They frequently have much worse health problems, including depression, and higher risk of mortality, than people who never drank. So there are selection biases in many studies on alcohol and health, the study said.
But the real problem with these studies is the confounding factors when it comes to alcohol – there are so many of them. Alcohol is not an ordinary product that you can test through traditional Western deductive scientific methods, where you control all or most of the variables and then test an isolated question.
With alcohol, there are a million variables – its use differs from society to society, from community to community, from group to group, from house to house. And there are separate, significant health factors – toxicity, intoxication and addiction. The latter two pose countless health, safety and economic impacts that spread far beyond the individual users.
Here’s a simplistic look at why it’s so difficult to determine whether alcohol may be good for you. You’re a researcher and your study group is 26- to 32-year old men who drink two drinks a day. In real life, you’ve got a 30-year-old guy who drinks two glasses of wine while sitting home at night watching Law & Order reruns. No problem, right? Easy to research?
But how big is his wine glass? It may be a big glass filled to the brim. And then, what if he decides to go out to check the pool vacuum in the dark? Or he plans to finish painting the crown molding standing on a ladder? Or his ex-wife calls up and wants him to cover over right away to discuss money problems? Or he’s a recovering alcoholic? Or he has stomach ulcers? Or he works the night shift in a factory starting in two hours? Or he takes medication the interacts with the alcohol? He only drank two glasses of wine, but look how different his risks may be.
Economic and social changes also affect his risks. Maybe his favorite label is on sale at the grocery store a block away. Or the friends he runs with have started drinking more heavily, so he does, too. A magazine ad on the table shows a group of happy young men and women drinking wine, and he’s lonely. He calls his cousin, who he knows is a heavy drinker, for consolation, and she counsels having another one. He usually only drinks two glasses, but one if he drinks a few more some nights and then adds in a few of the endless list of risk factors?
So many variables, each potentially changing the health and safety risks to the drinker and those around him.
The BMJ study suggests a truth: Researchers can never control for all the factors that influence consumption of our favorite drug. Researchers can never control for all the risks that accompany alcohol use. We should give up trying to prove that alcohol can be good for you and instead just focus on reducing the problems that it causes.