DR MICHAEL MOSLEY: Moderate drinkers are at less risk of heart attacks than teetotallers


Frank Sinatra, famous for his heavy drinking, once said: ‘Alcohol may be man’s worst enemy, but The Bible says: ‘Love your enemy.’

And that neatly encapsulates our love-hate relationship with booze. We know the dangers of heavy drinking, but most of us still get a lot of pleasure from a tipple.

Despite the pressures of lockdown, the average amount of booze being consumed in the UK hasn’t changed that much, but where we are drinking, what we are drinking, and who is doing the drinking certainly has.

Surveys suggest that while a third of us have cut back, another third (mainly men and women in their 50s, who were already fairly heavy drinkers) have drunk more over the past year.

According to research by the University of Sheffield, there has also been a significant switch from drinking beer to drinking spirits, partly driven by the gin trend.

Despite the pressures of lockdown, the average amount of booze being consumed in the UK hasn't changed that much, but where we are drinking, what we are drinking, and who is doing the drinking certainly has

Despite the pressures of lockdown, the average amount of booze being consumed in the UK hasn’t changed that much, but where we are drinking, what we are drinking, and who is doing the drinking certainly has

This could help explain the latest tragic figures showing there were 7,423 deaths in the UK caused by excessive alcohol consumption, the highest level for 20 years and up 20 per cent on 2019.

Due to the pubs and bars reopening, I fear those figures are likely to rise further in the months ahead.

I am particularly interested in alcohol, as although I was never a heavy drinker, I have recently cut back on the booze. These days I try to stick to only a few glasses of red wine at the weekends.

When I was at medical school, we were taught there is a U-shaped curve when it comes to drinking. 

Heavy drinkers and people who abstain were said to be at greater risk of heart disease (and therefore risk of premature death) than moderate drinkers — who averaged under two units a day (that’s roughly a can of strong lager, a double shot or a medium-sized glass of wine).

As a moderate drinker I found this very encouraging.

Since then, however, many researchers have disputed that claim, arguing that the studies which suggest moderate drinking is beneficial are flawed.

One problem is that when researchers compare people who don’t drink with moderate drinkers, the non-drinkers sometimes include former alcoholics and those in poor health, which skews the apparent benefits of moderate drinking.

Recently, however, there have been a number of careful studies which again point towards potential benefits of moderate drinking. One such study, which will be presented at the American College of Cardiology conference next week, has found that moderate drinking may be good for the heart, at least in part, because of its ability to reduce stress.

It was based on the health records of more than 53,000 people — mainly middle-aged women. The researchers found that those who reported a moderate alcohol intake (fewer than 14 units a week) had a 20 per cent lower chance of having a heart attack or stroke than those who never drank, or who drank less than one unit a week.

What was particularly interesting is they also used high-tech brain scans on nearly 800 people to get a direct measure of their stress levels — and found that, compared to moderate drinkers, non-drinkers showed higher levels of ‘stress-related activity’ in their brains.

The researchers suggest the fact that drinking alcohol, particularly in a social setting, helps you relax could explain why moderate drinkers have lower rates of heart disease.

It’s not just the quantities that affect health — what you drink also matters.

There is some evidence that red wine is better for you than other alcohol types, including a recent study, from UK Biobank (a huge database of British participants). This found that red-wine drinkers had lower rates of heart attacks and strokes than people who pre-ferred beer, cider or spirits, even when they’re drinking roughly the same number of units a week.

It could be that red-wine drinkers are simply more affluent, or that there is something in red wine that is protective.

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In one of the few randomised, controlled trials of drinking that I have managed to find, researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel took 224 teetotal volunteers (all of them had type 2 diabetes) and randomly allocated them to drinking a medium-sized glass (150ml) of red wine, white wine or mineral water, during their evening meal, every day for two years.

The wine and water were provided free of charge and the empty bottles collected afterwards. An impressive 87 per cent of them stuck to their allocated drink.

It was good news for the wine drinkers compared to the water group — the red-wine drinkers came out on top, with the white-wine drinkers a close second.

Both recorded significant improvements in their cholesterol levels and the quality of their sleep also improved.

This was a smallish study done for a relatively short period of time, but it adds to research showing that the occasional glass of wine is unlikely to do you harm, and may even do you good. Cheers!

Did using a sleep tracker make my nights worse?

If you own a sleep tracker and monitor it obsessively, you may have orthosomnia — an unhealthy obsession with trying to improve your sleep score. I suspect I have it. Recently, I lost my tracker, and since then my sleep seems to have improved.

The term ‘orthosomnia’ was coined by researchers from the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago who, in 2017, published a paper on it in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

One case study they described was a 69-year-old who noticed his tracker showed he was getting poor-quality sleep. At a sleep lab it was found that he had obstructive sleep apnoea, causing him to stop breathing for brief periods in the night.

So far so good. But despite the fact that this was treated, and his sleep improved, the patient spent ever longer in bed. He was constantly checking his tracker and trying to achieve a perfect night’s sleep. Which was, of course, self-defeating.

However, I am still tempted to buy another sleep tracker. Just out of curiosity…

Why Autumn babies are more popular 

Did you know that Virgos tend to be more sporty than Geminis? This has nothing to do with astrology and everything to do with the relative age effect, also known as the birthdate effect.

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In England’s school system, children born in September are nearly a year older, and more mature, than those born in late August. And this means that in the early years they’re more likely to be picked for school teams, as they will be stronger. They then get extra training, which reinforces their advantages. They are also more likely to be chosen as team captain.

The relative age effect explains why children born in the winter are more likely to end up playing professional football than those born in summer. Sir Bobby Charlton (born October 1937), Glenn Hoddle (October 1957) and Gary Lineker (November 1960) are just a few of England’s leading footballers who benefited from this.

A 2009 Open University study of footballers in English youth academies found that 57 per cent were born in September to December, while only 14 per cent had their birthday between May and August.

Being born in the right month can also make you more popular — or so suggests a recent study from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, involving more than 13,000 children aged 14 and 15.

They were asked to identify the five most popular people in their class, who were matched with their birth dates.

It turned out the further your birthday was from the start of the school year, the less popular you were likely to be, no doubt because older children have more confidence or status.

My school years were some of the most miserable of my life. Although I was born in March, I was moved up a year for academic reasons, so I was at least a year younger than most of my classmates.

But at least I can now blame some of my lack of sporting success (and popularity) on the relative age effect.

The consolations of science.



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