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Issue date: February 27-March 1, 1998

Alcohol: One a day helps hearts

New study says moderate imbibers have 20% lower risk of premature death.


The benefits
Drinking small amounts of alcohol, if you are middle-aged or older, may prolong your life and help ward off:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Certain cancers
  • Age-related vision loss
  • Mental deterioration
  • Duodenal ulcers
  • Thrombotic strokes
  • Some infections

    The risks
    Too much alcohol can:

  • Harm heart, brain, liver.
  • Promote cancers of the breast, esophagus, mouth, pharynx, larynx and liver.
  • Raise blood pressure and the risk of "bleeding" strokes.
  • Lead to alcoholism.
  • Increase accidents, suicides and violence, especially for young men.

    The best: wine
    Many experts say any type of alcohol -- beer, wine or hard liquor -- taken in moderation can benefit health, notably the heart.

    But others insist wine, especially red, is superior. A major new French study finds men who drink wine moderately have a 30 percent lower risk of death from all causes than non-drinkers or heavy drinkers.

    This is greater than U.S. researchers recently reported for all types of alcohol.

  • For years, the idea that alcohol could be good for you was unthinkable. No longer. The evidence of benefits from light drinking is now "massive," says leading British researcher Richard Doll, M.D., professor emeritus of medicine at Oxford University. Two new major studies make the case:

  • The largest study on drinking ever done, involving nearly half a million middle-aged and elderly Americans, recently found that those who had one drink a day -- wine, beer or hard liquor -- had a 20 percent lower overall death rate than non-drinkers. Death from cardiovascular disease (heart disease, stroke and other circulatory diseases) was 30-40 percent lower in once-a-day imbibers, said lead researcher Michael J. Thun, M.D., of the American Cancer Society.

  • After reviewing three dozen studies, Doll agreed: Drinking small to moderate amounts of alcohol in middle and old age "reduces the risk of premature death," cutting deaths from vascular disease by one-third. Alcohol is unlikely to reduce mortality in those under 45. In young people, drinking increases deaths from cirrhosis, injuries and violence. Men benefit more than women for two reasons: Women have less heart disease anyway, and the risk of breast cancer, especially in women of child-bearing age, increases with alcohol consumption. More than four drinks a day triples the risk of breast cancer.

    5 Ways Drinking Might Improve Health

    Affects blood. Alcohol raises good HDL cholesterol, slightly lowers bad LDL cholesterol and discourages the formation of blood clots by reducing blood platelet stickiness and increasing clot-dissolving activity. These are the probable reasons moderate drinkers develop less heart disease. Some researchers find moderate drinking reduces blood sugar and insulin levels. But alcohol can boost triglycerides, an artery-damaging blood fat.

    Fights inflammation. Alcohol is anti-inflammatory, says George Schreiner, a researcher formerly with Washington University. This is important because researchers now believe inflammation of blood vessels contributes to plaque build-up and strokes, heart disease and possibly Alzheimer's disease. Further, National Institutes of Health researchers recently reported that moderate drinkers have less rheumatoid arthritis.

    Boosts estrogen. Alcoholic drinks, independently of alcohol content, contain plant hormones that produce estrogenic responses in post-menopausal women, says Judith S. Gavaler, of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Such estrogen activity may help protect against heart disease, she says, and further explain the "French Paradox," which suggests red wine fights heart disease. In research, after removing all alcohol, she found that one glass of red wine triggered an estrogenic response in 92 percent of women; the figures were 83 percent for an ounce of bourbon and 77 percent for a can of beer or glass of white wine. More than one drink produced no greater effect.

    Supplies antioxidants. Many researchers think antioxidant phenolic compounds in alcoholic beverages, primarily red wine, convey a variety of benefits. Red wine is highest in antioxidants; white wine and dark beer also have some; spirits such as vodka, gin, scotch and whiskey contain little or none. Such plant antioxidants "thin the blood" much as aspirin does, and help guard against cell damage that promotes many chronic diseases.

    Acts as an antibiotic. Alcohol combats some viruses and bacteria. Evidence suggests this includes H. pylori, a bacterial cause of stomach ulcers; common cold viruses; the hepatitis A virus; and microbes that cause food poisoning, such as salmonella, E. coli and viruses in tainted oysters. Animal research at Bowman Gray School of Medicine in North Carolina shows red wine inhibits diarrhea even better than commonly used therapies. During a 19th century cholera epidemic in France, doctors found that those who mixed wine into their drinking water were more likely to survive. In experiments, wine quickly kills many germs, including cholera.

    Scientific sources for alcohol research

    Bonus "Eat Smart" recipe

    Mediterranean Chicken

    1 Tb. canola oil

    2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut in large chunks (about 2 pounds)

    1 cup low-fat chicken broth

    1 1/2 cups chopped onions

    24 prunes, orange- or lemon-scented

    1 cup prune juice

    1 Tb. cumin

    2 tsp. cinnamon

    1 Tb. soy sauce

    1 1/2 Tbs. honey or brown sugar

    1/3 cup whole raw unsalted almonds

    Heat oil in a skillet and brown chicken. Transfer chicken to a large casserole. In a separate bowl, combine broth, onions, prunes, prune juice, spices, soy sauce and honey or brown sugar. Microwave on high 10 minutes. Pour over chicken. Stir in almonds. Bake, covered, at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. Serve with brown rice. Serves 6.

    Per serving: 387 calories, 39g protein, 39g carbohydrates, 5.3g fiber, 9g fat (1g saturated), 370mg sodium.

    Alcohol Benefits By Age

  • For teens and young adults: Alcohol has no health benefits, only a higher risk of death.

  • For those 30-45: The health benefits of alcohol are unclear.

  • For those over age 45: Moderate drinking can be beneficial, especially if you're at high risk for heart disease.

  • If you drink at any age: Drink moderately, with meals. Binge drinking, intoxication and alcohol abuse raise the risk of disease and death. Never drink when it puts you or others at risk or if you have a problem using alcohol.

  • If you don't drink: Don't start drinking to promote health.

  • What's "moderate"? Daily, up to 4-5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or a jigger (1 1/4 ounces) of hard liquor for women. For men: no more than double that.

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