Can moderate, regular consumption of wine really be one of the keys to greater life expectancy? Dr Erik Skovenborg weighs up the evidence.
Modern man has been on the planet for around 300,000 years, and for 99 percent of that time, the average life expectancy at birth was 19. These days, the fastest-growing age group in the country is over 85, and the fascination with longevity is also growing. An increasing number of lavishly funded biotech companies is investing in research that they hope will halt or even reverse the aging process. The promise of a pill that delivers active longevity is an intoxicating thought, but the simple key to longevity is lifestyle. No one will age with robust vitality without their own active participation; and fortunately, a moderate, regular intake of wine seems to be one of the evidence-based lifestyle factors.
Eight healthy lifestyle habits
A new study involving more than 700,000 US veterans reports that people who adopt eight healthy lifestyle habits by middle age can expect to live substantially longer than those with few or none of these habits. The eight habits are being physically active, being free from opioid addiction, not smoking, managing stress, having a good diet, moderate non-binge drinking, having good sleep hygiene, and having positive social relationships. The study shows that low levels of physical activity, plus smoking and opioid use, have a greater impact on life expectancy than other factors, with a 30–45 percent higher risk of death. Next come stress, excessive alcohol consumption, poor diet, and sleep hygiene, all of which increase the risk of death by 20 percent, followed by the absence or scarcity of positive social relationships (+5 percent risk of death). The results—presented at Nutrition 2023, the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition—are based on data from 719,147 people enrolled in the Million Veteran Program (MVP), a vast survey gathering medical and genetic information from more than one million US veterans.1
Large gains in life expectancy
While the nature of these habits came as no surprise to the researchers, the estimated gain in life expectancy was far beyond what they had imagined when embarking on this large-scale study. According to the results, men who have all eight habits at age 40 would be predicted to live an average of 24 years longer than men with none of these habits. For women, having all eight healthy lifestyle factors in middle age was associated with a predicted 21 additional years of life compared to women with none of these habits.
Dr Yanping Li, a coauthor of the new study, is the lead author of a 2018 study combining the results from Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. The projected life expectancy at age 50 years was on average 14 years longer among female Americans with five low-risk factors (eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, keeping a healthy body weight, a moderate alcohol intake, and not smoking) compared with those with zero low-risk factors; for men, the difference was 12.2 years.2 The information gathered by the MVP study is so comprehensive that the researchers were able to add three new healthy habits—stress management, sleep hygiene, and positive social relationships—extending the previous five lifestyle factors to eight.
The role of wine in life expectancy
An earlier MVP study found a U-shaped association of alcohol consumption and risk of coronary artery disease (CAD), with a lower risk among current drinkers of up to three or four drinks per day compared to never drinkers and heavy drinkers.3 A standard drink was defined as 12g of alcohol; and for a fixed amount of ethanol, intake at above three days a week was associated with lower CAD risk compared with one day a week. Beverage preference (beer, wine, or liquor) did not influence the alcohol–CAD relation.
In the study of US nurses and male health professionals, adherence to each individual low-risk lifestyle factor showed a significant association with risk of total mortality, and each separate factor added years to the life expectancy at age 50, compared with individuals who adopted fewer low-risk lifestyle factors. In a sensitivity analysis—using a low-risk score without moderate alcohol intake as a lifestyle factor—the projected life expectancy at age 50 years was, on average, 11.4 years longer among female Americans with four low-risk factors, compared to those with zero low-risk factors; for men, the difference was ten years. A comparison with the 14 years for women and 12.2 years for men with moderate alcohol consumption included as the fifth healthy lifestyle habit settle the issue, with the clear inference that wine in moderation may indeed play a positive role in a healthy lifestyle.
2. Li Y et al, “Impact of Healthy Lifestyle Factors on Life Expectancies in the US Population,” Circulation 138 (2018), pp.345–55.
3. RJ Song et al, “Alcohol Consumption and Risk of Coronary Artery Disease (from the Million Veteran Program),” American Journal of Cardiology 121 (2018), pp.1162–68.