Modern Myths of Aging: Red Wine and the ‘French Paradox’

Modern Myths of Aging: Red Wine

This article is part of our series exploring the “modern myths of aging.” Read part 1 | Read part 3

Since the 1980s, the “French Paradox” has become widely known as a concept to describe the apparently low rates of heart disease observed in French people, despite a typical diet that includes many rich, fatty foods.

The concept was initially thought to be explained by French people’s consumption of red wine, which contains resveratrol, a compound believed to have anti-hypertensive effects and potential protective properties because of the ways it relaxes blood vessels.

But to get the 1 gram per day of resveratrol that some research suggests would result in such health benefits, a person would need to consume about 500 to 2,700 liters of red wine, or 800 kilograms of red grapes, or 2,900 kilograms of dark chocolate — massive amounts that would not be considered healthy, or even possible.

Digging deeper into the concept, some studies indicate that consumption of wine is inversely related to lower mortality, while some have shown no correlation with cardiovascular outcomes or longevity.

In a study of more than 3,000 people, those who drank wine weekly had about a 7% chance of dying, whereas people who never drank wine had about a 16% chance of dying. Furthermore, people who drank three to five glasses of wine per day had a 49% reduction in mortality rate than people who never drank wine. Three to five glasses of wine a day may be a bit much for some people, however.

Conversely, some counter evidence has shown that resveratrol has no effect on cardiovascular health, and wine in general has no protective properties. Furthermore, in one study, reduced consumption was correlated with a reduction in cardiovascular disease.

Some researchers believe that observed benefits of wine are actually due to other lifestyle factors, such as greater physical activity or an overall healthier diet, or even socioeconomic status.

Meanwhile, the global wine industry, worth $14 billion in 2009, continues to grow. In 2018, average annual consumption per person was about 3 gallons.

Ultimately, if you don’t drink wine or other alcohol, you don’t need to start in order to get or stay healthy. Furthermore, any potential benefits of drinking wine may not be the same for populations such as older adults, whose bodies may take longer to metabolize alcohol, or for people who have other medical conditions or take certain medications.

If you do drink wine or other alcohol, it’s best to consume only in moderation and to drink responsibly. Remember that it won’t make up for other unhealthy diet and lifestyle choices. While there’s no absolute answers to this and other “modern myths of aging,” evidence and research can help you make informed decisions for your health and well-being as you age.

Watch Institute for Health Director Dr. XinQi Dong’s mini lecture on the Modern Myths of Aging for the Rutgers University Alumni Foundation: