Moderate Drinking May Help the Heart

Studies Provide New Evidence That Moderate Drinking Prevents Heart-Related Deaths

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Elizabeth Klodas, MD, FACC

March 22, 2010 -- Two large new studies add weight to a growing body of evidence that light-to-moderate drinking may have a protective effect on the heart and prevent heart-related deaths.

While researchers stop short of recommending that people who don't drink take up drinking alcohol in hopes of reaping health benefits, they say the results "provide some of the strongest evidence to date" that moderate drinking reduces the risk of heart disease in a wide variety of people.

The first study showed that light-to-moderate drinking -- about one drink per day for women and two per day for men -- reduced the risk of heart-related death in a diverse national sample of more than 245,000 adults.

A second study showed moderate drinking reduced the risk of heart-related death as well as death from any cause in people with existing heart disease, thus extending the benefits already shown in healthy people.

Although experts say "absolute proof" that people at risk for heart disease benefit from light to moderate drinking will not appear anytime soon, the case is becoming increasingly compelling.

"The risks of moderate drinking differ by sex, age, personal history, and family history," writes Arthur L. Klatsky, MD, of Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, Calif., in an editorial that accompanies the studies in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

"As is often the case in medical practice, advice about lifestyle must be based on something less than certainty," says Klatsky. "What is required is a synthesis of common sense and the best available scientific facts."

Benefits of Light-to-Moderate Drinking

In the first study, researcher Kenneth J. Mukamal, MD, MPH, of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and colleagues analyzed data collected by the CDC's National Health Interview Survey of nearly a quarter million U.S. adults between 1987 and 2000.

Researchers divided drinkers and abstainers into six different categories (never drinkers, lifetime infrequent drinkers, and former drinkers as well as light, moderate, and heavy current drinkers). Light drinkers were those who regularly drank three or fewer drinks per week. Moderate drinkers were those who regularly drank four to seven drinks per week (for women) or four to 14 drinks per week (for men).

Overall, there were 10,670 heart-related deaths among the 245,207 participants. The researchers found that light and moderate drinkers had a 31% and 38%, respectively, lower risk of death due to heart disease than abstainers (whether they were never drinkers, lifetime infrequent drinkers, or former drinkers). But more alcohol was not better. Drinking above the light-to-moderate levels eliminated any risk reduction.

In the second study, Italian researchers analyzed eight previously published studies on alcohol and heart disease involving more than 16,000 people with heart disease.

The results showed light-to-moderate drinking of up 5 to 10 grams of alcohol a day (roughly equivalent to one standard drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks for men) provided the maximum benefits in preventing death from any cause. This protective effect of alcohol on people with heart disease remained significant up to 25 grams of alcohol per day.

Drinking more than 25 grams of alcohol per day, however, was associated with an increased risk of death, once again highlighting the hazards of excessive alcohol use.


SOURCES: Mukamal, K. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, March 30, 2010; vol 55: pp 1328-1335.

Klatsky, A. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, March 30, 2010; vol 55: pp 1336-1339.

Costanzo, S. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, March 30, 2010; vol 55: pp 1339-1347.

News release, American College of Cardiology.

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