Good news to end the year--and just in time for the holiday party season: 

A massive new study of more than 21,000 people, led by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, found that those who drank a glass of wine every day were substantially less likely to spend time in hospitals--for any reason.

The study focused on people living in Italy, who were largely consuming a Mediterranean diet, and who otherwise reflected the country's general population. 

During more than six years that researchers studied the participants, there were 13,000 hospitalizations among the group (some participants were admitted more than once). But overall, those who were complete teetotalers were 11 percent more likely to have wound up in the hospital at least once, compared to than those who did drank moderately.

Before people get too excited...

Now, some caveats. A few of these are obvious:

  1. There's a big difference between having a drink or two a day, and drinking excessively. In fact, the people who drank the most in this study had significantly higher hospitalization rates -- especially for alcohol-related diseases (no surprise) and cancer.
  2. The worst category: heavy drinkers who were also smokers. If you must drink, don't smoke. Actually, even if you don't drink, don't smoke.
  3. Finally, the study isn't suggesting that moderate alcohol intake is inherently good for you, just that as one of a panoply of variables, it does seem to lead to lower hospitalization rates (which you might take as a rough proxy for better health).

Let's emphasize that last point: "We are absolutely not saying that any tee-totaller should start drinking to improve his/her health," said study lead Dr. Ken Mukamal of Harvard. The study, entitled "Alcohol Consumption and Hospitalization Burden in an Adult Italian Population," was published this week in the journal Addiction.

The causation question

However, there's something really interesting about this study, in that the authors seem willing to suggest this might not simply be a matter of correlation, but of causation.

That's very rare. As summarized in the report:

Moderate alcohol consumption appears to have a modest but complex impact on global hospitalization burden. Heavier drinkers have a higher rate of hospitalization for all causes, including alcohol?related diseases and cancer, a risk that appears to be further magnified by concurrent smoking.

Of course, there are also many negative health effects associated with drinking, and for many people moderation is an elusive goal. Additionally, people tend to underreport the extent to which they drink or engage in other less healthful habits.

But if you're going to drink anyway, and many of us are, at least there's the suggestion here that you're getting a potential health benefit.

The 90+ Study

We'll cross this with one other study. Earlier this year, we reported on the 90+ Study, in which researchers have spent 15 years studying the health and habits of 1,500 people over the age of 90. And there were four key habits they found that made it more likely people would live longer.

Two of them make sense: engaging in physical activity and having hobbies.

But there were also two more surprising ones: They were slightly overweight, and they drank alcohol. People who drank 1-2 glasses of beer or wine in that study were 18 percent less likely to have an early death.

"I have no explanation for it," the study lead, neuroscience and neurobiology professor Dr. Claudia Kawas of the University of California, Irvine, told the British newspaper The Independent. "But I do firmly believe that modest drinking improves longevity."

And hey, at least it's not diet soda.