Back in January 2022, the World Heart Federation, a Geneva-based health advocacy organization that represents a number of heart associations worldwide, decided to make its position crystal clear about drinking alcohol and the damages it causes to public health. “Evidence has increasingly shown that there is no level of alcohol consumption that is safe for health,” they report. This statement is contrary to numerous clinical studies showing light to moderate drinking to be linked to better heart health.
“The portrayal of alcohol as necessary for a vibrant social life has diverted attention from the harms of alcohol use, as have the frequent and widely publicized claims that moderate drinking, such as a glass of red wine a day, can offer protection against cardiovascular disease,” Monika Arora, a co-author of the federation report, says in a news release.
Contrary to this view, the American Heart Association, a member of the World Heart Federation, continues to proclaim that when it comes to alcohol, “moderation (defined as no more than one drink a day for women and two for men) is key.” More evident are the health risks of alcohol related to other conditions such as an increased chance of cancer or neurological aging.
This conclusion was recently reinforced by a new study issued this past June, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology and reported by Time magazine. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital believe they may have uncovered a reason for alcohol’s link to better heart health. “It reduces stress signals in the brain in a sustained way, leading to less of a burden on the heart,” they conclude.
“The large size of the study let (researchers) determine that this effect was not caused by people’s socioeconomic statuses, activity levels, or even genetics — factors that are difficult to control for in smaller studies,” writes Time magazine’s Haley Weiss. “Something else appeared to be at work, which they discovered by looking at people’s brain scans. These suggested that drinking alcohol eases the brain’s stress levels in a lasting way, which lightens the stress load placed on the heart even days after someone’s last drink.”
That said, there are better ways than alcohol to create a stress-reducing pathway. One is exercise, the Time magazine report reminds us.
These differing scientific views got me thinking. Where does this leave us, the health-conscious reader confronted by this war of words? Do we just choose a side and hope we chose right?
Notes a 2021 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, “Contradictory health information impacts responses to new information and feelings toward the recommendations and experts providing them.” For the study, researchers looked at incidents of conflicting information between two or more statements about a health-related issue “inconsistent with one another,” reports ScienceDaily. Says the study, the battleground for such conflicting reports is today’s 24-hour news cycle, an abundance of social media platforms and news forums and the speed at which they can spread information. As a result, today’s “bombardment” of conflicting messages about health issues is making it “harder than ever for people to make critical decisions.”
Another example of such conflicting views is found when looking at clinical opinions on how to deal with excessive weight and obesity. Lisa Marshall holds the title of associate director of science storytelling at University of Colorado Boulder. In a post on Medical Xpress, she writes that, while the mortality risk of being slightly underweight has likely been overestimated, “Excess weight or obesity boosts risk of death by anywhere from 22% to 91% — significantly more than previously believed.”
The findings, published in February in the journal Population Studies, “counter prevailing wisdom that excess weight boosts mortality risk only in extreme cases,” she writes. “The statistical analysis of nearly 18,000 people also shines a light on the pitfalls of using body mass index to study health outcomes.” The study provides evidence that “the go-to metric can potentially bias findings. After accounting for those biases, it estimates that about 1 in 6 U.S. deaths are related to excess weight or obesity.”
According to Ryan Masters, an associate professor of sociology at CU Boulder, “The conventional wisdom is that elevated BMI generally does not raise mortality risk until you get to very high levels and that there are actually some survival benefits to being overweight.” Masters is a social demographer who has spent his career studying mortality trends. “I have been suspicious of these claims,” he adds.
Other experts take a somewhat different view. In a recent report by Kaiser Health News, it is suggested that for older adults, some excess weight isn’t necessarily bad. “Millions of people enter later life carrying an extra 10 to 15 pounds, weight they’ve gained after having children, developing joint problems, becoming less active, or making meals the center of their social lives,” writes Kaiser News reporter Judith Graham. “Should they lose this modest extra weight to optimize their health? … For years, experts have debated what to advise older adults in this situation.”
“On one hand, weight gain is associated with the accumulation of fat. And that can have serious adverse health consequences, contributing to heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and a host of other medical conditions,” says Graham. “On the other hand, numerous studies suggest that carrying some extra weight can sometimes be protective in later life. For people who fall, fat can serve as padding, guarding against fractures. And for people who become seriously ill with conditions such as cancer or advanced kidney disease, that padding can be a source of energy, helping them tolerate demanding therapies.”
“Of course, it depends on how heavy someone is to begin with,” the Kaiser report continues. “People who are already obese (with a body mass index of 30 or over) and who put on extra pounds are at greater risk than those who weigh less. And rapid weight gain in later life is always a cause for concern. … Maintaining weight stability is a good goal for healthy older adults who are carrying extra weight but who don’t have moderate or severe obesity.”
“Making sense of scientific evidence and expert opinion surrounding weight issues in older adults isn’t easy,” notes Graham. A statement all could finally agree upon.