April 26, 2017

How Drinking like the Swedish can add 10 Years to our Lives.


I’ve spent a lot of time over the years thinking about how we should live our lives in order to have as much time on this earth as possible.

Both my parents had multiple risk factors, and unfortunately I lost them far too early. That shook me up.

Would their genes have a negative impact on my health and longevity? I decided to get to the bottom of what I needed to do to enjoy as long and as healthy a life as possible.

I am a Swedish physician with over 20 years’ experience in clinical patient care, and I am interested in the health promotion perspective which has been gaining popularity in Scandinavia—how to boost health rather than focusing on disease and death.

I decided to study health factors instead of risk factors, to shift from the negative to the positive, with a focus on new knowledge about why some people are so healthy and live so long. I was of course also looking at many of the people around me; what was it that helps Nordic people, in particular, live long and healthy lives?

The Nordic countries are known for their pared-down simplicity and, in Sweden, we refer to this as lagom. There is no English equivalent to this inherently Swedish word, but it is best translated as “just the right amount,” and in Sweden we often say, “Just the right amount is best.”

Lagom can be applied to almost any situation—from the amount of coffee you’d like to how much exercise you should do—but more than that, it indicates balance and a Swedish idea of moderation. To live a healthy life, you do not have to go to extremes. It’s the small and simple changes that amount to a happier, healthier life.

Enjoying Alcohol with Swedish Moderation.

This is a sensitive subject, for so many reasons. Alcohol can be a help and a hindrance. Regular alcohol consumption in small quantities is thought to promote health and reduce the risk of various diseases. Too much alcohol, on the other hand, can lead to a litany of diseases and premature death. Unfortunately, consumption is not evenly spread across the population, with around 10 percent drinking 50 percent of the alcohol consumed. It is this 10 percent who have the biggest problems with alcohol.

So what is the right balance? First, the positive health effects of alcohol consumption do not come until you reach the age when the risk of cardiovascular disease rises, which is in middle age. Alcohol has absolutely no positive effect on the health of younger people.

Second, the positive effect on health only applies to those who drink in moderation. It is therefore up to each of us to decide whether alcohol should be part of a health-promoting lifestyle. Drinking to get drunk wipes out any positive effects from the alcohol and instead poses a risk of alcohol abuse, with all the major medical and social problems that follow.

Research shows: Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

Several major studies indicate that a regular low to moderate intake of alcohol in middle and older age significantly reduces the risk of developing or dying from cardiovascular disease.

A report by the Swedish Agency for Health Technology Assessment and Assessment of Social Services (SBu) states that people with diabetes who regularly drink moderate amounts of alcohol run a lower risk of developing or dying from cardiovascular disease than those who do not drink alcohol.

Research shows: Reduced risk of diabetes.

According to a Finnish study that followed over 11,000 pairs of twins for 20 years, moderate consumption (such as 1–2 glasses of wine a day) reduced the risk of developing diabetes by 30 percent for men and 40 percent for women.

Research shows: Reduced risk of rheumatoid diseases.

A Scandinavian study has shown a 40–50 percent reduction in the risk of rheumatoid diseases in those who drank alcohol regularly compared with those who didn’t.

Drinking in moderation appears to have positive health effects from middle age onward. However, reports are also coming out that question the benefits of alcohol. In other words, more research is needed to gain firmer answers.

Drinking alcohol on a daily basis can also be dubious advice, since even low to moderate intake may put some people at risk of developing a dependency. It is thus essential to remain vigilant about your relationship with alcohol. If you are a teetotaler, you should not start drinking alcohol simply to reduce the risk of disease. Bearing in mind the downsides of alcohol, there are many less risky ways to promote health.

*Excerpted from “The Nordic Guide to Living 10 Years Longer: 10 Easy Tips for a Happier, Healthier Life” by Bertil Marklund. Published by Greystone Books, April 2017. Adapted and reproduced with permission of the publisher.

Author: Bertil Marklund, MD, PhD

Image: Taylor Davidson/ Unsplash

Editor: Khara-Jade Warren



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Bertil Marklund, MD, PhD