This reader-friendly piece successfully conveyed the main point of a new study: science linking alcohol consumption to heart health is inconclusive. Featuring plenty of independent sources and bolded bullet points addressing key caveats about alcohol-related research, the piece smartly counters the narrative that alcohol is unquestionably heart healthy. While the overall story is solid, a bit more detail about the new study’s design, findings, and limitations would have been helpful.
Many people are familiar with the notion that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, particularly red wine, could be good for the heart. And so, many people clink glasses and drink to “one’s health.” But as an an editorial that accompanied the study reported on states, “Globally, more than three million deaths each year are attributable to alcohol.” The potential — but uncertain — benefits of alcohol consumption should be balanced against its known harms.
Cost was not an issue here. People generally know what a bottle of wine or other alcohol costs.
The article stated: “the science suggesting a benefit has never been conclusive,” which could explain why the story hesitated to put numbers down in this case.
But the story pointed out that women over the age 65 could be an exception, as this age group experienced some health benefits with moderate drinking. What were these health effects? And how much more benefit did this group see?
Also, with a Swedish study mentioned in the story, it’s said that middle-aged people who had more than two drinks a day “had a markedly increased stroke risk.” What does that mean? And by how much?
Some numbers could have clarified sweeping statements such as these.
The story notes a variety of potential harms associated with moderate drinking: excess calorie intake, increased blood pressure (among those with hypertension), and increased breast cancer risk in women.
The article also pointed out that heavy drinking is not good for anyone: “It has long been linked with stroke, heart failure and many non-cardiovascular hazards, including car crashes.”
This rating was a close call. On the one hand, there was no discussion of how the studies that are the focus of the article were conducted, and there wasn’t any mention of their specific limitations. For example, the investigators acknowledged that the study’s self-reported data may be inaccurate because it depends on participants’ memories, which are proven to be hazy. According to data from the US National Alcohol Survey, 52.9 percent of participants who claimed they never drank in 1992 had reported drinking in a previous survey.
But on the other hand, the story did include expert comments that speak to the main limitation of most research on the health benefits of alcohol consumption — namely, that they are observational studies that can’t prove cause and effect. As the quoted expert puts it, “I cannot prove and I don’t think anyone can prove that alcohol consumption can prevent anyone from dying or prevent heart attacks.” He adds: “Some studies following moderate drinkers and non-drinkers for decades find lower death rates and fewer heart attacks and strokes in the drinkers. But those studies do not prove alcohol is the reason for the differences.” The story further notes that results of previous studies could be skewed by the fact that some non-drinkers are former drinkers with health problems.
The article did not engage in disease mongering.
The article interviewed four solid sources at reputable academic centers – an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, a cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic, a professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, and a neurological surgeon at Rush University Medical Center.
The reporter interviewed two physicians who were knowledgeable about heart health – the cardiologist and the spokesperson for the American Heart Association (AHA). It was a missed opportunity to briefly explain some adjustments one can make to diet and lifestyle to fight heart disease as an alternative to a glass of red wine a day. For example, the AHA recommends 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables to help control weight, blood pressure and cholesterol. An additional sentence along those lines would’ve satisfied this criterion and, we think, improved the message for readers.
The availability of alcohol is not in question.
The report briefly went into how a couple of recent studies may be challenging the claim that alcohol is good for your heart. But it didn’t give much background on why these studies differ from dozens of previous studies that have reported potential benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. Researchers argue that participants were poorly selected or grouped in the past. A bit more discussion on this issue in the story would have been welcome.
The USA Today report was not based on this press release about the study.