Wine for Your Health and Wealth

A U.S. Department of Health and Human services study that examined whether Medicare money should be spent on discouraging alcohol use made one startling discovery: Drinking wine can reduce annual health care costs.

Analyzing data during a five-year period for more than 4,000 relatively healthy adults, the department determined that insured light and moderate wine drinkers can each save Medicare about $400 in health care costs per year.

The subjects of the study were monitored for medical treatments, hospitalizations, length of stay and costs of each stay. Those who drank six to 13 glasses of wine per week had the lowest Medicare costs in comparison to nondrinkers or heavy drinkers. Moreover, non-drinkers and heavy drinkers cost Medicare approximately the same amount of money, the study asserted. Needless to say, Medicare will not be spending any money on an anti-wine drinking campaign.

The study’s results were a major coup for wine health advocates. But they also call to mind other medical findings that give credence to the notion that wine can be beneficial to your health and, by extension, to your wealth.

Matters of the Heart

The main health benefit of moderate red wine consumption appears to be related to its effect on reducing the development of atherosclerosis, the accumulation of fatty plaques, in the blood vessels, particularly the coronary arteries that supply the heart. These deposits decrease blood flow to the heart and promote the formation of vessel-blocking clots, which can cause heart attacks.

The latest studies suggest that consuming alcohol (especially red wine) may also reduce the incidence of coronary heart disease. Several studies have demonstrated that resveratrol, which is found in the skin of red grapes, is an effective antioxidant and protects cells against cellular age-related breakdown. Reduced platelet aggregation (clotting) has also been demonstrated in studies on resveratrol, further contributing to its prevention of atherosclerosis and stroke.

Live Long and Prosper

Back in 2003, I reported that David Sinclair, a Harvard molecular geneticist, made research findings that showed that a calorie-restricted, nutritional diet with 30% fewer calories than usual, extended the lifespan of rodents by 30-50%.

It appeared that through the activation of the enzyme sirtuin, cellular repair systems were boosted to prolong the healthy life of the cells and prevent their transformation into cancer cells or aged cells. Sinclair hypothesized that resveratrol stimulates the release of sirtuin and the low calorie diet. He went on to demonstrate that in yeast, fruit flies and worms treated with resveratrol, healthy life expectancy could be increased by 80%.

This prompted Dr. Leonard Guarente of MIT to suggest, “Even someone who started drinking red wine at age fifty could expect to gain an extra ten years of life.” On went the investigation into resveratrol, a naturally occurring molecule that builds up in undernourished animals and plants attacked by fungi – e.g. grapevines. Resveratrol is a polyphenol and polyphenols are already known to be antioxidants protecting against neurodegeneration, cancer and blocked arteries.

Why Red?

The resveratrol content of wine is related to the length of time the grape skins are present during the fermentation process. Thus the concentration is significantly higher in red wine than in white wine, because the skins are removed earlier during white-wine production, lessening the amount of resveratrol extracted. Grape juice, which is not a fermented beverage, does not have a significant source of resveratrol.

In his recently released follow-up study, Dr. Sinclair fed two groups of mice a diet that contained 60% fat, dosing one group with enormous amounts of resveratrol, the equivalent of about 1,500 bottles of red wine for a human. Though both groups gained weight on the fatty diet, the resveratrol mice exhibited none of the symptoms associated with obesity – they stayed healthy and lived 15% longer than the control group, which developed diabetes, enlarged livers and poor motor coordination. Resveratrol appears to protect the body at the cellular level, triggering a gene that repairs DNA damaged in the course of living.

Who’s Drinking Wine?

In 2006, a Nielsen market analysis in the U.K. concluded that sales and consumption of wine are greater in Great Britain than beer. ABC News reported on the Foster’s analysis results in Australia that also showed that wine has overtaken beer as its greater source of revenue, with wine sales rising to more than $1.9 billion, compared to beer revenues of $1.7 billion. Within the past two years, wine has also overtaken beer as the most popular drink (also over soda and bottled water) in France and Italy.

The United States, so far, shows conflicting results. Data released earlier this year by the Wine Market Council showed that younger consumers, in particular, drink either less beer or spirits (or both), but at the same time drink more wine. However, in the newly released 2006 Gallup annual survey of Americans’ alcohol drinking habits, 41% of American drinkers surveyed said they drink beer most often, 33% said wine and 23% said they drink liquor most often.

What’s Next?

The American Heart Association has already included moderate wine consumption in its list of heart healthy life habits, along with exercise, blood pressure management, healthy diet and weight control, but some doctors are still reluctant to recommend wine drinking to their patients. Will the new Medicare research be the data that convinces these medical holdouts to “prescribe” wine during yearly health check-ups? Perhaps you’ll find out next time you visit your physician.