Moderate Alcohol Consumption Cuts Risk of Heart Attack by at least 25 Percent
For immediate release: December 10, 1999
Boston, MA--Two drinks a day will reduce risk of heart attack in individuals by at least 25 percent, according to a report published this week in the British Medical Journal by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. The authors found equal benefit for beer, wine, and spirits.
By examining over 75 previous clinical studies in which alcohol was provided in experimental doses, the researchers have pinpointed two mechanisms by which alcohol reduces risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). Ethanol alcohol increases HDL-cholesterol ("good cholesterol") and reduces clotting ability in the blood.
The cholesterol and blood-clotting benefits are also applicable to women; although recommended guidelines for women are for a single drink a day because there is evidence that alcohol increases risk of breast cancer. One daily drink will not substantially increase this risk and will provide some protection against CHD.
A higher HDL level slows the development of atherosclerosis, a plaque build-up that forms on the interior of arteries in the heart. As atherosclerosis advances it narrows the artery, dramatically increasing the risk of heart attack.
Alcohol's effect on blood clotting ability is also beneficial. If a crack breaks open in the atherosclerosis plaque, blood will clot around the crack, again possibly plugging the artery and causing heart attack.
"We don't recommend that people who don't drink begin drinking for medicinal purposes," said lead researcher Eric Rimm, associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. "However, for those who drink moderately, this new evidence suggests that they are reducing their risk of heart attack by about a quarter."
"This is a significant effect," he emphasized. "It's about the same risk reduction for heart attack that a person who was overweight by 30 pounds would achieve by losing those 30 pounds."
He also added, however, that an overweight person would achieve multiple health benefits from losing weight--overall, an overweight person would be better served by losing weight. Or, ideally, losing weight and drinking moderately.
The researchers found a dose-response curve with alcohol consumption with the two mechanisms. Reduced beneficial health effects were found with lower doses of alcohol, and increased benefits for cholesterol and blood clotting were found with consumption in excess of two drinks.
"However," cautioned Rimm, "once you begin drinking more than two drinks a day you may begin to put yourself at risk for a host of adverse health conditions--various cancers, alcoholism, bleeding disorders, accidental injury and death. It's clear that men achieve maximum benefit and minimum risk at two drinks a day."
This new study summarizes 25 years of experiment research on alcohol and suggests that moderate alcohol consumption is causally related to lower risk of CHD through alcohol-induced changes in lipids and clotting factors.
The study, "Moderate Alcohol Intake and Lower Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: Meta-Analysis of Effects on Lipids and Hemostatic Factors" is published in the December 11, 1999, British Medical Journal. The study can be found online at www.bmj.com.
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