The award for worst health reporting of the week goes to…numerous news outlets that reported on the benefits of booze for bone health today. A study released this morning, which suggests that regular alcohol consumption could lower risk of osteoporosis in women over 50—the problem is, the study’s scope was miniscule, didn’t test against other lifestyle factors, and its findings run counter to just about every other evaluation of alcohol’s impact on bone health. So headlines reporting the study’s conclusion in the guise of cutting-edge health advice aren’t just overly hopeful; they’re overly irresponsible.
The study, led by Urszula Iwaniec, PhD, associate professor at Oregon State University, tested a sample group of 40 women in early menopause. Those who drank more alcohol (up to two drinks per day) had denser hip bones than those who drank less (as little as half a drink per day); researchers believe this is because alcohol inhibits the body’s shedding of old bone cells. When the women took a 14-day retreat from drinking, their blood tested higher for a molecule that gets released during bone turnover; when they began drinking again, their blood tested lower for the same molecule within a day.
All of this sounds like promising data, especially for women who are inclined to drink. The problem is, 90% of the women drank wine regularly (the average alcohol consumption for the group was 1.4 glasses of wine per day), and the study didn’t test for other variables—like diet, exercise, or genetic predisposition towards osteoporosis, and while the data mirrors other study results, it doesn’t clarify whether it’s alcohol that really helps bone health, or something else.
And what the study—and articles about the study—fail to mention is that drinking alcohol has also been correlated with lower bone density and higher risk of bone fractures. The message—particularly for young women—has long been that alcohol isn’t a boon to our bones; while it might be one of the perks of growing older, headlines proclaiming wine a protector against osteoporosis for women aren’t painting an accurate picture at all.
Summer can be a slow time for health news–we’re all grasping at straws for something that can compete with summer blockbusters—and, well, summer—for readers’ attention. But blowing a study like this out of proportion isn’t just sensational, it’s irresponsible.
Photo: Emiliano De Laurentis