Regular alcohol intake prevents heart attack - new evidence

Related tags Coronary heart disease Alcoholic beverage

Having a drink at least three times a week may help protect men
from heart attacks, report researchers in the US in this week's
New England Journal of Medicine. The observational study,
which tracked the drinking habits of nearly 40,000 men over 12
years, for the first time identifies that regular consumption is
key to alcohol's benefits.

Daily or near-daily servings of beer, wine or spirits may help protect men from heart attacks, according to the results of a large, long-term study by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) in the US.

The findings show that men who drank moderate amounts of alcoholic beverages three or more times a week had a risk of heart attack 30 to 35 per cent lower than non-drinkers.

The observational study, which tracked the drinking habits of nearly 40,000 men over a 12-year period, provides an important clue as to how alcohol helps guard against coronary heart disease, report the researchers in the 9 January issue of The New England Journal of Medicine​. And for the first time, the evidence strongly suggests that routine consumption of alcoholic beverages is key, they say.

"Even relatively modest amounts of alcohol may be protective if consumed frequently,"​ said the study's first author, Dr Kenneth Mukamal from BIDMC's Division of General Medicine and Primary Care and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. "Our results document that a pattern of regular consumption at least three to four days per week is associated with the lowest risk of heart attacks."

The researchers analysed data from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study based at Harvard. Subjects included a total of 38,077 male health professionals between the ages of 40 and 75. Beginning in 1986, the subjects responded to a detailed questionnaire regarding diet, medical history and patterns of alcohol consumption. They then completed follow-up questionnaires every four years thereafter until 1998.

The researchers assessed four features of alcohol use: type of alcohol consumed (beer, spirits, red wine or white wine); the average amount of alcohol consumed; whether or not the beverage was consumed with a meal; and the number of days per week that alcohol was consumed.

The authors recorded 1,418 cases of both fatal and non-fatal myocardial infarction (heart attack) among the study participants during the 12-year period. After adjusting for a number of factors - age, smoking, physical activity, parental history of heart disease, body-mass index, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, aspirin use and diet - the findings showed that alcohol consumption was associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease, regardless of the type of beverage, the quantity consumed per drinking day, whether or not it was consumed with meals or the type of coronary outcome. The variable that was consistently associated with the lowest risk was the number of times per week a participant drank alcoholic beverages.

After separating study subjects into categories based on whether they drank no alcoholic beverages, drank fewer than once or twice a week, drank three to four times a week, or drank five to seven times a week, the researchers found that the subjects in the categories of three-to-four or five-to-seven drinks per week had a 32 to 37 per cent reduced risk of coronary heart disease, compared with abstainers.

The reasons behind these findings may be twofold, noted Mukamal: "In general, alcohol raises levels of HDL, the good cholesterol. But, in addition, alcohol impacts the body's sensitivity to insulin, as well as platelet function and clotting factors."​ Through these additional effects, he said, alcohol may be improving how the body metabolises blood sugar and helping to prevent the development of blood clots, which can lead to a heart attack.

"It seems that alcohol's influence on platelets and clotting is relatively short-term,"​ he added. "This could explain why frequent alcohol intake is of greatest benefit in helping to guard against coronary heart disease."

Eric Rimm, Associate Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and the study's senior author, added that this was one of the first studies to document a lower risk of heart attacks among men who increase their alcohol consumption over time. Study subjects who increased consumption by one drink per day during the 12 years of the study had a 22 per cent lower risk of heart attack than men whose consumption patterns remained unchanged.

Mukamal warned that these findings cannot be generalised without reservation. "It's always tricky to offer individual advice based on observational studies of large numbers of people,"​ he noted. "You need to take into account other considerations - for example, a person's family history, the risk of driving in an impaired state, the risk of developing liver problems - before deciding on the safest level of alcohol consumption for that individual.

"However, among men who drink alcohol, consuming one or two drinks a day three or more times a week may help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease,"​ he concluded.

The research was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

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