More Booze, Fewer Heart Attacks?
Study Finds Protection Increases With Drinking Frequency
"Alcohol does raise HDL cholesterol and may have other benefits, but it also does some bad things, such as have an anti-clotting effect on blood. Studies show that people who drink to excess, even if only one night a week, face a higher death rate," says Margo Denke, MD, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, another researcher who has documented health benefits of alcohol. "My advice is not for people to take up alcohol or see this as a license to drink more in order to lower their risk of heart attack. It's to not eat as much and to exercise more."
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."