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To Your Health

Stronger Bones and Sharper Minds

But perhaps the most startling news of all came in studies suggesting that moderate drinkers may cut their risk of osteoporosis -- age-related bone thinning related to calcium loss. A report in the American Journal of Epidemiology in April 2000 showed that women who drank 11 to 29 grams of alcohol a day -- the equivalent of one to three glasses of wine -- had greater bone mineral density, measured in the hip region of their thighbones, than nondrinkers or heavy drinkers. Bone mineral density is the measure physicians use to determine bone strength and resilience.

That news was quickly followed by an equally encouraging report in November in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Testing nearly 500 elderly women, researchers from Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., found that bone mineral density was 12% to 16% higher among moderate drinkers, compared with nondrinkers.

And women aren't the only ones who may benefit. In a study published in the journal Osteoporosis International in November 2000, Finnish scientists tested 143 men aged 54-63. Compared to nondrinkers, the men who enjoyed a glass or two of alcohol a day also showed signs of greater bone mineral density.

How to Drink to Your Health

A healthy heart. Protection against cancer. Stronger bones. With health benefits like those, you'd think doctors would be handing out prescriptions for wine by the padful.

Yet despite the encouraging findings, many physicians are reluctant to advise nondrinkers to begin drinking. With good reason: While moderate drinking appears to offer some impressive health benefits, excessive drinking can be deadly. It remains a sad truth that hundreds of thousands of Americans die of liver disease and in automobile accidents caused by drunk drivers every year.

Even the health benefits associated with wine disappear when people drink too much. For example, the studies cited above indicating greater bone density for women who were moderate drinkers also found that those who drank to excess may actually have had thinner bones by comparison. And not surprisingly, the results from the Seven Countries Study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in August 2000 suggested that heavy drinkers died almost two years earlier on average than moderate drinkers, although (perhaps surprisingly) the moderate drinkers outlived the nondrinkers by the same amount.

So far, there's little agreement on exactly what "moderate" drinking means. Until medical science is better at defining the "right" amount, limiting yourself to only two glasses a day if you're a man, and one if you're a woman, and then only after discussing it with your physician, is probably prudent.

"To life," the traditional drinking toast goes. To which most researchers would add another: "In moderation."


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