More Booze, Fewer Heart Attacks?
Study Finds Protection Increases With Drinking Frequency
The Harvard finding was based on surveys, distributed every two years from 1986 to 1998, about the drinking habits of the 38,000 study participants. During the 12 years, 1,418 had heart attacks -- more often occurring in those who drank little or not at all. The fact that they were all veterinarians, dentists, physicians, and other types of doctors may have had some role in the results, since the health professionals are statistically more likely to practice healthier lifestyles, such as smoking less, exercising more, and eating better.
"It's true that their socioeconomic status and even lifestyle is somewhat different than the average, but we don't have any evidence to suggest that biological effects of alcohol are different for them than for the general population," says Mukamal. "However, heavier drinkers also tend to be smokers but even in heaviest drinking group in our study -- those who consumed alcohol daily -- only about a quarter were smoking when the study began."
He and his colleagues also found the protective nature of drinking was greater in beer and hard liquor than with wine, which is more frequently touted for its antioxidant properties in reducing risk of heart disease. But again, it was a matter of frequency: "When these men drank, they typically had a martini or beer over a glass or two of red or white wine," he says. "It's not that beer or liquor are better for preventing heart attack."
Denke concurs: "Alcohol itself is the active agent, not the type of drink," she says. "The grape skins and their antioxidants found in wine are just blips on the radar screen."
Interestingly, the researchers noted a 25% reduced risk in fatal and non-fatal heart attacks among those who increased their daily alcohol consumption an average of about a half-ounce compared with those whose consumption didn't change.
But before following that pattern, Mukamal suggests you talk to your doctor before the barkeep.
"It would appear that frequent moderate drinking, as has been done throughout the world for thousands of years, might help prevent heart attack for many people. But we only looked at heart attack risk, and not the other effects of alcohol -- both positive and negative," he says. "So before making the decision to start drinking or drink more, you need to talk to your physician and consider everything that is going on in your life."