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Health in a Bottle?

Moderate drinking may be beneficial to your heart.

The Downside of Drinking

So why not recommend a glass or two for everyone? First, because not everyone stands to benefit: Drinking apparently has very little to offer women in their 20s and 30s, for instance. In findings from the Harvard Nurses Study, published May 11, 1995, in the New England Journal of Medicine, alcohol cut heart-disease risk almost in half and lowered overall death rates by 14%, but mostly for women over 50. That makes sense medically, since women's risk for heart disease begins to climb steeply only after menopause.

And for people at any age, too much alcohol can cause major health problems. Excessive imbibing actually increases the danger of heart disease, according to a report published in the Novartis Foundation Symposium in 1998. Even a single session of alcohol consumption consistent with legal blood-alcohol levels may be linked to heart disease, stroke, or cirrhosis, according to a Sept. 15 issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation. It can also elevate blood pressure and cause irregular heartbeat. Serious alcoholism damages the liver and can lead to liver failure. Overall, an estimated 100,000 people die every year of alcohol-related causes, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So how much is too much? Research is inconclusive: While the French study found that up to five glasses of wine a day lowered heart disease risk for men, a study published last January in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that the risk of certain cancers may begin to outweigh the heart benefits after only two drinks a day. And certainly more than two drinks can get you in big trouble behind the wheel.

To be safe, the new federal guidelines are expected to recommend no more than one drink a day for women and two for men. They may also make it clear that drinking alcohol has health benefits starting only in middle age. And they could add other caveats as well, such as the guidelines that accompany the wine-friendly Mediterranean pyramid. Those guidelines recommend that people drink wine with their meals, which slows the absorption of alcohol and may enhance cardiac benefits by blocking the oxidation of fats.

Peter Jaret is a freelance writer in Petaluma, Calif., who has written for Health, Hippocrates, and many other national publications. He is a contributing editor for WebMD.


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