Should You Say “Yes” to Happy Hour?

Discover how drinking responsibly in the company of good friends might add years to your life.

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A glass of wine and good conversation can ease your tension after a long day. But if you’re undecided about joining friends for happy hour, consider the pros and cons of moderate drinking, according to science.

For one, saying ‘yes’ to happy hour might lengthen your life if you drink responsibly. People living in Blue Zones, areas with the world’s longest living individuals, practice what longevity experts call, “Wine at Five.” Except for those who skip alcohol due to religious or personal reasons, residents of Blue Zones tend to gather for a glass of wine with friends on most evenings.

We spoke with Sam Aznaurov, MD, a cardiologist with Aurora Denver Cardiology Associates and Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver, Colorado, to learn more on about risks and possible benefits of moderate drinking.

How much should you drink at happy hour?

Women should have no more than one drink per day and men should have no more than two drinks per day, according to national guidelines. That doesn’t mean you can save up your drinks for the weekend and have 14 beers in one night. And even if half the wine bottle fits in one glass, it doesn’t count as one serving.

“A standard drink is defined as 14 to 15 grams of alcohol,” says Aznaurov. That equals different serving sizes for each type of beverage. It comes out to:

  • Twelve ounces of beer
  • Five ounces of wine
  • One and a half ounces of eighty-proof liquor  

The amount you drink is by far the most important factor in determining how alcohol will affect your health, says Aznaurov. The potential benefits of moderate alcohol consumption disappear quickly once you move past the daily recommended drink limit—it really doesn't take much to go from the ‘moderate’ to ‘high-risk’ category, he warns.

Moderate alcohol intake might protect your heart

“Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America. But, from a heart-health standpoint, there does seem to be some benefit to moderate alcohol intake,” says Aznaurov. “It may increase HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol and improve your body’s sensitivity to the hormone insulin, which controls blood sugar.”

You can see these effects among the French population, he adds. The ‘French Paradox’ is that, despite eating foods that are high in saturated fats, French people experience a lower rate of heart disease than you’d expect. Some experts believe this is related to their red wine intake.

Over a hundred studies have linked moderate alcohol intake to a lower risk of:

  • Heart attack and stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Dying from a heart-related condition

Happy hour is also a chance to socialize, which benefits your overall mental and physical health, adds Aznaurov. In fact, spending time with close friends can lower your risk of depression and may even help you live longer. Just be sure to balance happy hour with active daytime outings like walking meet-ups.

However, there are limitations whenever you study the effects of alcohol. There are usually other factors that could interfere with results like whether someone smokes too, or if they order greasy foods with their beverage. Moderate drinkers also may be more likely to have a healthy lifestyle in other ways, making it hard to tell if benefits come from the alcohol or something else. 

Even moderate drinking may damage the brain over time  

Moderate alcohol use may damage an area of the brain involved in memory called the hippocampus, according to a 2017 study published in The BMJ. Researchers followed 550 people over 30 years, tracking their weekly alcohol intake and cognitive, or thinking skills periodically. At the end of the study, they took MRI scans to see if there were any differences in brain structure between participants.

The results: People who drank more had more hippocampal atrophy, or shrinkage. Even moderate drinkers were three times more likely to experience shrinkage than non-drinkers. Light drinkers didn’t have significant atrophy on their scans, but they didn’t receive any protection from drinking either.

Did these changes actually affect people’s ability to think? To find out, researchers had them complete 10 memory tests at different points during the study. The differences between groups were small, but both moderate and heavy drinkers were more likely to have reduced lexical fluency (how many words with the same letter they could name in under one minute).

The authors concluded that this might call into question current US guidelines on safe alcohol consumption.

Don’t brush off the risks of drinking

While alcohol might offer some benefits in moderation, drinking always comes with a list of possible risks. For example, alcohol is linked to liver disease and certain cancer types like breast and throat cancer. Also, there’s not enough evidence to suggest that non-drinkers should start drinking; there’s no way to predict who alcoholism will affect.

Remember, drinking contributes to about half of all driving deaths in the US, says Aznaurov. Make sure your happy hour plans include a designated driver and don't be shy about calling a taxi, he cautions.

If you have a mental health condition or you’re taking psychiatric meds, ask your healthcare provider if alcohol is safe for you at all. Drinking may worsen a number of mental health conditions and can interfere with psychiatric medications like some antidepressants.

Pass on happy hour all together if:

  • You could be pregnant
  • You have a history of alcoholism or liver disease
  • You have a family history of alcoholism or liver disease
  • You’re currently being treated for heart disease or cancer

Enjoying the occasional happy hour can be one part of an overall healthy lifestyle, but the health benefits of socializing may outweigh any that come from the bottle.

“It’s pretty easy to get excited about the possible advantages of moderate drinking because it doesn’t require any work,” says Aznaurov. “But the best ways to protect your health are still the ones that require some effort on your part. Controlling your portions, exercising routinely and getting enough sleep aren’t as much fun as saying ‘yes’ to happy hour, but they’re key to maintaining good physical and mental health.”

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