aging · fitness

Drinking vs. exercise for longer life: check the fine print, please

Popular news outlets just cannot let much time go by without publishing a story about some way to live longer.  For a while now, we’ve been seeing news articles touting the benefits of alcohol consumption to reduce mortality risk for heart disease, cancers and other causes of death. Here’s US News and World Report, in an article from the winter:

Study: drinking alcohol more important than exercise to living past 90. Instead of an apple a day, try a glass of wine.
Study: drinking alcohol more important than exercise to living past 90. Instead of an apple a day, try a glass of wine.

Whoa.  Is this true?

Of course not!
Of course not!

But but but— why did they publish this?

I don’t have a good answer to that question, other than “it was close to the deadline, and someone wanted a catchy headline”. But here is another question: what does the research mentioned in the article actually say?

Ah, that one I can handle. There’s a big study, called The 90+ study,  that is following a cohort of 90-plus year-olds to try to find out what allows people to live to 90 years and beyond. Here are a couple of  things they have found so far:

  • People who drank moderate amounts of alcohol OR COFFEE lived longer than those who abstained.
  • People who were overweight in their 70s lived LONGER THAN normal or underweight people did.

The news article also mentions that the researchers found that taking up a hobby or doing REGULAR EXERCISE contributed to longer life. Hmmm… I thought the headline said that drinking alcohol was more important than exercise.

This is why we gotta read the fine print. Or in this case, just the actual print of the article.

Feel free to stop reading here if you have other things to do.  I feel duty-bound to add a few technical bits — TL:DR version is “science is complicated”.

technical bit one: There is a totes legit controversy in health research over the question of whether light alcohol consumption reduces all-cause mortality. Some recent fancy meta-analyses say yes, and other recent ones say that, when you fix the methodological problems with the studies, no. If you want to dive into this, start here and here and here.

technical bit two: There is totes legit unanimity among everyone even remotely connected to health care and research that engaging in physical activity reduces all-cause mortality.  This is true regardless of, well, anything. No matter who you are, where you live, etc., physical activity confers longevity benefits.

technical bit three: in science, when we find some association between A and B, we feel more comfortable asserting it if we have some underlying theory that helps explain why A and B are associated. For instance, ice cream sales go up in summertime.  This makes sense– it’s warmer outside, people are going out for recreation, and ice cream places tend to be conveniently located near recreation areas (or so it seems to me, as I pass at least 4 yummy ice cream stands on my road rides).  Here is one of them– I love their retro charming facade:

Windows at old-fashioned ice cream  place along the route of one of my road rides. Yes I do stop sometimes.
Windows at old-fashioned ice cream place along the route of one of my road rides. Yes I do stop sometimes.

But as far as I can tell, researchers don’t have a theory for why light alcohol consumption would lengthen life. By the way, this isn’t just wine– the results are for any kind of alcohol.  Even the main researcher for the 90+ study, Dr. Claudia Kawas, was quoted in that news article as saying this:

“I have no explanation for it, but I do firmly believe that modest drinking improves longevity,” Kawas said in her keynote address.

On the other hand, we have loads and loads of scientific theory explaining the myriad ways in which exercise confers longevity.  Or, as this article puts it:

A plethora of epidemiologic evidence from large studies supports unequivocally an inverse, independent, and graded association between volume of physical activity, health, and cardiovascular and overall mortality.

So where does this leave us?  Well, science will do its thing and we will find out more about aging, activity, eating, disease and mortality risk, etc., in due course. In the meantime, my money’s on physical activity, because it’s fun for me and it seems to make me feel good in the moment (at least a lot of the time), and in general (most of the time). It’s your call.

Two women crouching, preparing to run.  One has white hair, and one has dark hair.
Two women crouching, preparing to run. One has white hair, and one has dark hair.

 

3 thoughts on “Drinking vs. exercise for longer life: check the fine print, please

  1. This is the one that fascinates me, “People who were overweight in their 70s lived LONGER THAN normal or underweight people did.” Wonder if it’s a protective effect or if it follows from something else like eating well.

    Like

  2. I often think the people who exercise more do so because generally they are the healthiest and would have lived longer regardless.
    I am a strong believer in moving, but I don’t see the data that supports extreme exercise for health or longevity, so I will stick with yoga.

    Liked by 1 person

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