Why Coffee, Cigarettes and Booze Can Be Good For You

Ransom Riggs

Recently, a couple of surprising studies have turned the tables -- albeit in an admittedly minor way -- on the conventional wisdom about smoking, boozing, and drinking coffee. (They were definitely not subsidized by Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the American Heart Association.) The first, conducted by scientists at the University of Texas at Austin, analyzed the mortality rates of drinkers and non-drinkers, and found, somewhat shockingly, that moderate drinkers (which they define as one to three drinks per day) have a significantly longer life expectation than non-drinkers -- something on the order of a few years.

The study looked at 1,824 participants over 20 years. Filtering out "socioeconomic status, level of physical activity, number of close friends, quality of social support," and still found that nondrinkers just don't live as long as their drinking compatriots. Over the 20-year period, 69 percent of the nondrinkers died, 60 percent of the heavy drinkers died and only 41 percent of the moderate drinkers died.

(The study doesn't offer any theories about why this might be true, however.) The second study, carried out over several years at the University of Washington, points to "promising compounds" in nicotine and caffeine which they claim lengthened the life-span and had a beneficent effect on the dopamine cells of fruit flies -- the latter result reinforcing other studies that have found that avid smokers and coffee drinkers enjoy a lower risk of Parkinson's disease.

The health risks of drinking and smoking are well-known; the health benefits, however -- few and far between as they may be -- are still being discovered. Anyone care to hazard a guess about why the moderate drinkers from study #1 lived longer than non-drinkers?