Moderate Alcohol Benefits Vary by Race and Sex, Finds Huge US Survey

Medical News Today, April 24, 2015

Compared with no alcohol consumption, sensible levels of drinking have correlated with better heart health. However, a new analysis has revealed that a cardioprotective link from moderate drinking is not the same for people of African ancestry as it is for white ethnicity, and nor across the sexes.

The findings are drawn from the national health interview survey, run by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the analysis of data from 152,180 adults has been published in the American Journal of Public Health.


The relationship of overall death rates from any cause with levels of alcohol consumption varied by both groupings. The researchers, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, MA, found the following correlations.

For males, the lowest risk of mortality was:

  • For white men, linked to having 1-2 drinks on 3-7 days a week
  • For black men, found in those who never drank.

Moderate drinking was protective for females similarly–for white, but not for black women:

  • The lowest risk of mortality was among white women consuming one drink on 3-7 days a week
  • But among black women, the lowest death rates were among those having one drink on 2 or fewer days a week.

The study’s lead author says the findings could change public health policy. Chandra Jackson, PhD, epidemiologist and research associate in clinical and translational research at Harvard, says:

“Current dietary guidelines recommend moderate consumption for adult Americans who consume alcoholic beverages. Our study suggests that additional refinements based on race/ethnicity may be necessary.”


The authors discuss the potential explanations for their main finding of racial difference in effects of alcohol consumption, including lifestyle and social factors, and biological and genetic mechanisms.

The researchers call for future research against a list of factors that may vary across different groups of people to explain direct and indirect links to the healthiness and otherwise of alcohol consumption in terms of death risk. They offer these examples for further analysis:

  • Lifestyle related to diet, physical activity, sleep and “youthful experimentation versus coping with hardships”
  • Socioeconomic status and other markers of “social integration”
  • Differences in physical, chemical and social exposures to alcohol, in both occupational and residential environments
  • Genetic and gender differences.

The epidemiological analysis was of data from 126,369 white people and 25,811 black. The CDC survey data were collected from 1997 to 2002, and follow-up continued to monitor death rates through 2006.


Touching on potential biological differences, meanwhile, they discuss confusing results: “The rapid metabolism of alcohol among blacks resulting from potential genetic differences could reduce cardiovascular benefits, yet we found a suggestion of benefit for light consumption among black women, but not among black men.”


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