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That Glass of Merlot May Not Actually Be Good for Your Health

The popular belief that moderate alcohol consumption provides health benefits may be wrong, according to an analysis that debunks the idea that light drinking prevents heart disease and prolongs life.

Earlier studies contained flaws that exaggerated the health benefits of booze, according to a report in the British Medical Journal. Once corrected, significant positive results were seen in only one group: women over 65 who drank sparingly. And even that result may be problematic, the authors said.

Alcohol use contributes to diseases including cancer and cirrhosis, and kills 3.3 million people a year, about 6 percent of global deaths, according to the World Health Organization. While the beverage industry has seized on studies that tout alcohol’s supposed benefit in preventing heart disease, new research shows that reducing even light drinking may improve your health, Mike Daube, a health policy professor at Curtin University in Australia, said in an editorial accompanying the study.

“In health as elsewhere, if something looks too good to be true, it should be treated with great caution,” Daube wrote. “Health professionals should discourage suggestions that even low-level alcohol use protects against cardiovascular disease.”

Researchers at University College London and the University of Southampton in England, and at University of Sydney in Australia, examined the drinking habits of men and women 50 years and older. They used data from 1998 to 2008 in the nationwide Health Survey for England.

The researchers attempted to improve upon studies that compared the health of drinkers to non-drinkers. Earlier work skewed results in favor of moderate drinking because the studies didn’t distinguish between abstainers and less healthy former drinkers in the “non-drinker” group. The researchers also adjusted for the age of drinkers and other factors such as obesity and tobacco use.

The new analysis showed a possible “minimal” benefit for men between 50 and 64, and a larger benefit for women over 65 who were light drinkers. That result may stem from selection bias, lead researcher Craig Knott of University College London wrote in an e-mail.

“Individuals who participate in studies tend to be particularly healthy relative to comparative individuals in the general population,” he said.

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