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Alcohol is good for your heart

Red wine being poured into a glass against a vineyard background



Studies have noted that moderate alcohol use is associated with a lower risk of heart attack in those persons with known cardiovascular disease or in higher risk populations. Yet no studies are focused specifically on alcohol use and whether it is by itself a protecting factor. Previous studies only look at alcohol intake as one of a combination of factors. (Arch Intern Med 2006;166:2145-2150)

Researchers in Israel and at Harvard identified 8,867 men from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, which is a large-scale (over 51,000 men participating), long term (starting in 1986 and continuing to the present) study of health professionals who reported diet, lifestyle factors, and health conditions via mailed-in questionnaire every two years. These 8,867 men were chosen because they reported four healthy lifestyle behaviors, which were:

  • A Body Mass Index under 25 (normal weight as defined by the WHO and the CDC)

  • Participating in vigorous activity for 30 minutes or more each day

  • Not smoking

  • A healthy diet: high in fruits, vegetables, fiber, fish, chicken, nuts, soy, and polyunsaturated fats, while low in trans-fats, red meat, and processed meats

In their dietary questionnaires, the participating men also reported on their average alcohol intake (separated into beer, white wine, red wine, or liquor) every four years.

After 16 years of follow-up, the scientists analyzed the number of heart attacks these health professionals had and found that those men who drank one-half to two drinks per day had the lowest risk for heart attack of all the participants. Drinking more than two drinks per day also showed a reduced risk of heart attack, but not as high a reduction as those who drank less than two drinks per day. This reduction in risk remained even when the researchers controlled for age or cardiovascular medication use or the various levels of actual physical activity, Body Mass Index, or if they were past smokers.

They further analyzed the results and found that for those men who did not smoke and had two of the three other healthy lifestyle factors, moderate alcohol intake provided as much of a reduction in their risk of heart attack as having the fourth lifestyle factor in their favor.

What this means for you:

Because of the risks associated with alcohol abuse and alcohol's link to other diseases, including breast cancer in women and cirrhosis of the liver, I can't recommend alcohol use as a way to protect yourself from heart attack. The take-home message here is that in addition to other healthy lifestyle factors, moderate alcohol use can help reduce your risk of heart attack. By all means, have a glass of wine with dinner if you'd like, but make sure you've got a healthy diet (like The Mediterranean Diet), regular exercise, and a Body Mass Index under 25 on your side.

First posted: October 25, 2006