By Dennis Thompson
THURSDAY, March 23, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- Having a drink each day may help protect a person's heart against disease, a large-scale study suggests.
But don't bend that elbow too often: drinking to excess can increase your risk for a variety of heart problems, the study also showed.
Researchers tracked more than 1.9 million healthy British adults and found that having the occasional drink was tied to reductions in the risk of heart attack, sudden heart death, heart failure and stroke, compared to non-drinkers.
In the study, "moderate" drinking was defined as 7 pints of regular beer or 1.5 bottles of wine in one week, researchers said in background notes.
"We have shown that heavy drinking increases a person's risk of developing a variety of different types of cardiovascular disease as well as raising their risk of dying from non-cardiovascular causes," said lead researcher Steven Bell. He's a genetic epidemiologist with the University of Cambridge in England.
Despite these results, non-drinkers shouldn't feel pressure to pick up a bottle for their heart health, even though the study showed some potential benefit from casual drinking, Bell said.
"There are safer and more effective ways of reducing cardiovascular risk, such as increasing levels of physical activity, maintaining a healthy diet and quitting smoking, which do not incur increased risks of harm such as alcohol dependence, liver disease and certain types of cancer," Bell said.
For this study, researchers at the University of Cambridge and University College London investigated the potential link between alcohol consumption and 12 cardiovascular diseases by analyzing electronic health records for nearly 2 million adults with good heart health.
The investigators found that moderate drinkers had a 32 percent lower risk of heart attack, 56 percent lower risk of sudden heart death, 24 percent lower risk of heart failure, and 12 percent decreased risk of ischemic stroke. This type of stroke occurs when a clot blocks the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain.
But people who went over the line into heavy drinking wound up with increased heart health risks, including a 21 percent higher risk of sudden heart death, a 22 percent higher risk of heart failure, a 50 percent increased risk of cardiac arrest, a 33 percent increased risk of ischemic stroke and a 37 percent increased risk of bleeding in the brain.
The findings were reported March 22 in the British Medical Journal.
The new study is consistent with earlier results that have indicated a potential heart health benefit from an occasional drink, but it amplifies the message since it involved millions of patients, said Dr. Allan Stewart, director of aortic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
"With this degree of power in the study, it's pretty good evidence you are benefitting your health by having a few drinks a week, or a drink or two a day," said Stewart, who wasn't involved in the study.
There are several potential ways that casual drinking might benefit heart health, although none have been proven, Bell and Stewart said.
Alcohol consumption has been linked to increases in "good" HDL cholesterol and properties in blood that reduce clotting, Bell said. It's also possible that moderate drinking helps reduce your stress levels, Stewart said.
Both men noted that this study was not a formal experiment and did not prove a cause-and-effect link between moderate drinking and heart health, even though it involved many people.
However, the results indicate that U.S. guidelines for healthy drinking appear to be on the right track, said Dr. Kenneth Mukamal, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.
"The guidelines basically say if you're a man, never have more than two drinks in a day, and if you're a woman, never have more than one drink a day," said Mukamal, who wrote an editorial accompanying the new study. "That's a simple message, and yet more Americans don't follow it than do."
U.S. guidelines consider a drink to be 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.