Studies showing that alcohol protects the heart raise questions about drinking.
Does moderate, prudent drinking protect the heart and arteries? Two analyses say — shout, actually — that the answer is yes. But they raise a bigger issue: What should we do with this information? The answer to that question may come as a surprise.
Let's look at the findings first. Researchers from the University of Calgary, University of Texas Health Science Center, and Harvard Medical School scoured the medical literature for long-term studies that compared drinking habits with the development of cardiovascular disease. Of the 4,235 studies they identified, 84 met the researchers' strict criteria. When combined, these studies included more than 2 million men and women who were followed for an average of 11 years.
Using a technique called meta-analysis, the researchers pooled results from the 84 publications and analyzed the data as if they were from one gigantic study.
Looking at those with no alcohol use and moderate alcohol use (no more than two drinks a day for men and no more than one drink a day for women), the study found that moderate use…
… reduced the risk of a new diagnosis of coronary artery disease — 29%
… reduced the risk of dying from any cardiovascular disease — 25%
… reduced the risk of dying from a heart attack or coronary artery disease — 25%
… reduced the risk of dying from any cause — 13%
… reduced the risk of having an ischemic (clot-caused) stroke — 8%
… increased the risk of dying from a stroke — 6%
… increased the risk of having a hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke — 14%
The amount of alcohol consumed influenced the effect. For coronary artery disease and death from it, any amount of alcohol reduced heart disease risk by about 25 percent. But this was offset by stroke risk: At four drinks per day, the risk of having a stroke was 62 percent higher than it was with no alcohol use, and the risk of dying from a stroke was 44 percent higher. The lowest risk for any cause of death was at one drink per day.
If alcohol affected only the coronary arteries, a drink a day might be good medicine. But it affects almost every body part, and the amount consumed determines the ultimate outcome. For that reason, study authors concluded that "our findings lend further support for limits on alcohol consumption."
The researchers based this conclusion on the complexity of alcohol's effects on health. Moderate drinking offers some protection against coronary artery disease, but it does just the opposite for hemorrhagic stroke, while heavier drinking significantly increases the risk of having or dying from a stroke. And then there's the rest of the body to consider.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that 4 in 10 people who drink alcohol are heavy drinkers or at risk of becoming one. Excessive consumption of alcohol is only harmful. It is a major cause of preventable deaths and contributes to liver disease, a variety of cancers, and other health and relationship problems.
Do you have a problem with alcohol? How much and how often you drink constitute one way to identify if you have a problem with alcohol. Other measures include the effect that drinking has on you and how you feel about it. These are included in three commonly used tests you can take at health.harvard.edu/173.
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