Thursday, May 25, 2017

Understanding the risk of drinking (or not drinking) wine: Meet micromort

Whether we are talking about driving a car, drinking wine, or any other routine activity, most of us are not very good at calculating risk. Life insurance company actuaries devote careers to these sorts of calculations, but even they will tell you it gets really muddled when assessing small risks of prematurely dying from everyday endeavors. With nutrition and lifestyle choices it’s practically impossible. That doesn’t stop us from trying though, and one approach is unit of measurement called the micromort. A micromort is a one in a million chance of dying (mort from mortality.) If nothing else, it is useful in placing things in perspective; there’s even an app for tracking your micromorts as you consider lifestyle choices.
Take scuba diving, for example:  5 micromorts. It is said that 3 glasses of wine equals eating 100 char-broiled steaks or spending an hour in a coal mine, for a micromort each. Really? That sounds bad, and frankly didn’t make sense to me when I heard the term recently. So I decided to look into it.
The term dates to the 1970’s and is attributed to physics professor Richard Wilson, then at Harvard. I tracked down the original reference, or at least the earliest I could find, in the journal Technology Review. Interestingly, the article contains no references but does have a detailed list. For example add a micromort for traveling 6 minutes by canoe, 10 miles by bicycle, or 300 miles by car. Smoke 1-1/2 cigarettes or live with a smoker for a month. Spend 2 months in Denver (more cosmic radiation at higher altitude.) Oh and there is wine – right alongside the risk of living near a nuclear power plant.
If these are all small risks, what is the problem? It’s this: describing risk this way assumes that it is a linear relationship, meaning a little is not so bad, a lot really bad. This is true for many of the choices we make, but we now know that the risk with wine is a J-shaped curve. Unlike smoking, moderate consumption is less risky compared to teetotaling. We forgive the professor because we could not have expected this more nuanced perception in the era before the French Paradox and all the research that occurred in its wake. But the thinking pattern persists, and references to wine and its micromort factor continue to be bandied about. It’s this kind of thinking that underscores policy recommendations, for example Britain’s chief health officer’s recent admonition that any amount of drinking is unsafe. Or breast cancer researchers, seeing only risk and raising alarm without looking at overall health and longevity.

Celebrate National Wine Day

What we need is macro-life, a way of seeing the big picture. We need to consider quality of living as much as quantity. Today, May 25, has been designated National Wine Day, and I say cheers to that. And subtract a micromort if you care – spend it on a plane flight (1000 miles).
Nothing is more useful than wine for strengthening the body, and also more detrimental to our pleasure if moderation is lacking.

-              Pliny the Elder

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Of Wine, Charity and Health

Although wine has been associated with health since the dawn of civilization, the relationship was consummated in 1859 with the founding of the Hospices de Beaune annual charity wine auction. Built in 1443 as an almshouse and hospital for the poor, the Hospice was and is to this day supported by vineyard holdings. The auction serves to create a market for the wines, and has become a huge annual event in Burgundy. Following this lead, charity wine auctions are now held throughout the world, benefiting health care and a range of worthy causes. Some wineries now devote their profits directly to health care charities, and I would like to highlight a few of them here.
Napa Valley winery Ehlers Estate is actually owned by a charitable trust, Fondation Leducq. The vineyard dates to the 1880’s, and produces 100% organic wines. The foundation, based in France, sponsors internationally collaborative research in cardiovascular and neurovascular disease.  Their grants have gone to more than 100 institutions in 18 countries.
Another California winery, J Lohr Vineyards & Wines, honors the legacy of Carol Waldorf Lohr, who passed away from breast cancer in 2008.  Their Touching Lives program, now in its eight year, aims to make early detection possible for thousands of women by helping women get access to mammograms. A portion of proceeds from every bottle sold of J. Lohr Carol’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon benefits the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
Walla Walla winery Vital Wines produces wines that, in the words of founder Ashley Trout, “complete a circle” by supporting healthcare for vineyard workers. All proceeds go to the SOS Clinic, a free, non-profit health care clinic. Because vineyard work is seasonal, access to healthcare can be a challenge for this population.
Napa’s ONEHOPE Wine was founded on the basis of charitable giving, with a variety of wines each benefiting a specific cause. Their Rutherford Estate Sauvignon Blanc supports Napa farmworkers with on-site medical care and health education, and the Napa Valley Reserve Merlot “helps provide life changing medical care to patients around the world.”

This sense of charity pervades the wine industry throughout the world, perhaps more than any other business category. Generosity of spirit is linked to good health, wine is a cornerstone of healthy living, and the synergy of the two is powerful. So let’s fill a glass with one of these generous offerings and toast to health and long life!