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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


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