Reports strengthen notion that moderate drinking helps heart
By Richard Saltus, Globe Staff, 04/17/01
Two new reports strengthen the impressive evidence that moderate drinking is good for the heart, with one study showing it boosts the odds of survival following a heart attack and the other that it significantly reduces the risk of heart failure in older people.
Get reaction from area physicians and more analysis on the teetotalers vs. health benefit dilemma in tomorrow's story in the Boston Globe.
Today's reports and dozens of previous studies all show that one or two drinks a day cuts heart disease risk both in healthy people and in those who already have heart disease.
While reassuring to moderate drinkers, the studies create a dilemma for teetotalers and their physicians. That is, should doctors advise abstaining patients to take up drinking, when there's a risk that some will go on to be out-of-control problem drinkers?
Two research reports and an editorial in today's Journal of the American Medical Association are the latest in an estimated 70 to 80 studies showing that moderate alcohol use lessens the risk of heart attacks, strokes caused by blood clots, and clots that block circulation in the legs.
In the first study, Dr. Kenneth J. Mukamal of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School led a team that interviewed 1,913 patients at 45 hospitals shortly after being admitted with a heart attack. The researchers asked about their drinking pattern in the previous year, and then monitored their health over the next four years.
Forty-seven percent of the patients said they didn't drink at all, 36 percent reported 7 drinkers or fewer a week (light drinkers) and 17 percent consumed 7 or more drinks a week (moderate drinkers). Only a small number of people reported they had 3 drinks a day, and they were excluded from the analysis.
After four years of followup, deaths among light drinkers were 20 percent less than among teetotalers, and moderate drinkers' deaths were 30 percent less than among teetotalers.
The drinkers survived longer mainly because they had fewer subsequent heart attacks. And, in contrast to some previous studies suggesting that red wine has a more protective effect than other alcoholic beverages, the study showed no difference among those who drank beer, wine or hard liquor.
Moderate alcohol consumption increases the levels of "good'' HDL cholesterol in the blood and helps prevent blood clots. The researchers had to adjust their analysis to take into account that moderate drinkers tend to be healthier, better educated and more affluent than nondrinkers, and so would be less likely to die from heart disease even without the alcohol effects.