For more than a decade, we’ve been led to believe that the fruit of the vine may extend our life span. New research suggests it may be a bit more complicated than that.
In 2006, an obscure Harvard scientist named David Sinclair did an immense favor for wine drinkers (and wineries) everywhere when he published the results of a study showing that resveratrol, a component found in red wine, may contribute to a longer life.
As David Stipp notes in his book, The Youth Pill, Sinclair drew an inordinate amount of attention for somehow cracking the life-extension code. “I came away convinced that the long, weird quest to extend life span — a 5,000-year trek during which hopelessly hopeful seekers tried everything from transfusing blood from youths into their aged veins to injecting minced dog testicles — was finally getting somewhere.”
There were caveats, of course, Sinclair’s mice had ingested the equivalent of a few barrels of Cabernet Sauvignon, a daily dose that would challenge the verticality of even the hardiest sommelier. But the response to his findings was immediate and, to my way of thinking, culturally transformative.
Per-capita wine consumption in the United States jumped by nearly 20 percent between 2006 and 2015. Meanwhile, a New York University study published late last year reported that binge drinking among folks 50 and older is on the rise. All of which suggests that Sinclair’s resveratrol epiphany has convinced plenty of aspiring centenarians that a third or fourth glass of Pinot Noir would not necessarily be a bad thing.
Researchers in the years since Sinclair’s discovery have done little to disabuse us of that notion. Just last week, in fact, scientists at the Institute of Food Science Research in Madrid released a study suggesting that moderate wine consumption may delay the onset of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Focusing on the “wine-derived human gut metabolites” that remain after the wine passes through the digestive system, Adelaide Esteban-Fernandez, PhD, and her team found that these compounds pass through the blood-brain barrier and protect brain cells from dying. The relative efficiency of that wine-tummy-brain connection, however, depends upon the gut’s ability to produce the proper metabolites. Merlot with every meal, in other words, may not produce the desired cognitive effect if your microbiome is out of whack.
Still, it was welcome news to geezers like myself, who can’t imagine a more palate-pleasing strategy in the battle against dementia. Combined with the reams of past research showing the more general heart-healthy benefits of alcohol consumption, you can excuse the senior set for questioning the results of a February study out of the U.K. that suggests our enthusiasm is not necessarily warranted.
Calling the relationship between alcohol and cardiovascular disease “both complex and controversial,” a research team led by Steven Bell, MD, of University College London, argues that “moderate alcohol consumption might be protective for some cardiovascular disease but not others.”
They found that nondrinkers had a higher risk of certain types of heart disease compared with moderate drinkers, while heavy drinkers encountered more of a mixed bag of issues. “Though higher levels of alcohol intake are associated with a lower risk of initial presentation with myocardial infarction,” Bell writes, “this is offset by heavier drinkers having a greater risk of initially presenting with several other cardiovascular diseases as well as mortality from non-cardiovascular causes.”
In other words, it’s a bit more complicated than Sinclair’s resveratrol discovery seemed to indicate. And that’s something to contemplate if you’ve been quaffing an excessive amount of chianti as part of a longevity strategy. It certainly beats minced dog testicles, but that’s not saying much.