Nov. 18, 2009 -- Regular consumption of alcohol -- beer, wine, or hard liquor -- reduces the risk of heart disease in men by a third or more, according to a new Spanish study.
''Our study confirms what many other studies have already said," says researcher Larraitz Arriola, MD, of the Public Health Department of Gipuzkoa in San Sebastian, Spain. One difference, she says: Researchers in the new study separated ex-drinkers from lifelong teetotalers in hopes of better understanding the alcohol-heart health link.
Arriola and colleagues also found a beneficial effect of alcohol for women's heart health, she says, but it was not strong enough to be considered statistically significant. She suspects it's because of the relatively low number of women in the study who developed heart disease.
While drinking was associated with heart health, Arriola is quick to offer this caveat: ''I would not advise anybody to [start to] drink alcohol, because alcohol causes, as we mention in our paper, 1.8 million deaths a year" in addition to disabilities.
"If somebody already drinks alcohol, then I would advise to drink moderately, eat healthy food, and do some exercise."
In the study, researchers evaluated more than 41,000 men and women enrolled in the ongoing European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (EPIC) study. That study includes a half million adults living in 10 Western European countries.
In the current research looking at alcohol and heart health, the researchers evaluated 15,630 men and 25,808 women ages 29 to 69, all free of heart disease at the beginning of the study, following them for a median of 10 years (half longer, half less).
The researchers calculated alcohol intake from a diet history record; a follow-up revealed which participants had a cardiovascular event -- either a heart attack or unstable angina (chest pains) that required a procedure such as a bypass operation or angioplasty.
During the follow-up, 609 such events occurred to 481 men and 128 women.
Spain has low heart disease death rates in comparison to some other countries, but high levels of alcohol consumption.
Amount of Alcohol and Heart Risk
Drinking any type of alcohol lowered the risk of serious heart disease in men, with the amount of risk reduction associated with the amount of alcohol:
- Light drinking reduced risk by 35%
- Moderate drinking reduced risk by 51%
- High and very high levels of drinking reduced risk by 54% and 50%.
Former drinkers had a 10% risk reduction.
For the study, the researchers considered a drink as an alcoholic beverage with 10 grams of alcohol, the U.K. standard, Arriola says. In the U.S., a standard drink is equal to 13.7 grams of alcohol, according to the CDC.
Roughly, here is how Arriola defines her categories:
- Light drinking was up to 5 grams a day -- or about one glass of wine, one and one-half beers, or less than a half glass of hard liquor.
- Moderate drinking was 5 to 30 grams a day, or about two glasses of wine, two or three beers, or a half to one glass of hard liquor.
- High and very high levels of drinking were 30 to 90 grams a day, or about five or more glasses of wine, seven or more beers, and one to one and a half glasses or more of hard liquor.
While the type of alcoholic beverage consumed, overall, did not have an effect on the level of risk reduction, the researchers found the protection greater for those drinking moderate to high levels of alcohol, which included beverages other than wine alone.
The study results replicate many other studies, according to Kristi Reynolds, PhD, MPH, a research scientist and epidemiologist at the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Medical Group. But she points out that heavy alcohol consumption carries many risks.
In an email, she writes that heavy alcohol consumption has been shown in other studies to lead to increased illness and death from other causes. "Therefore, the implications of these findings should be examined cautiously. Advice regarding alcohol consumption should be tailored to the individual patient's risks and the potential benefit."