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Light drinking may reduce heart disease and death but ...

March 22, 2010 |  2:00 pm

Wine Three new studies lend credence to the idea that light to moderate alcohol intake appears to be good for the heart. However, there is little to gain and lots to lose from heavy drinking.

Researchers in Italy analyzed eight studies encompassing 16,351 people with a history of heart disease. They found that those consuming five to 10 grams of alcohol per day (about one-half to one drink) had the lowest incidence of death from heart disease and all causes of death. The study found some benefit for people who consumed from 11 to 25 grams of alcohol a day. After that, however, drinkers had higher death rates than people who abstained from alcohol.

A second study, by U.S. researchers, analyzed data from the National Health Interview Survey. The people surveyed were ranked in six categories: never drinkers, lifetime infrequent drinkers, former drinkers, light drinkers, moderate drinkers and heavy drinkers. Among the 245,207 respondents, light and moderate drinkers had a lower risk of heart disease and death compared with the three abstainer groups. Heavy drinking, however, was not significantly associated with either higher or lower risk. There was no difference in heart disease and death rates among the three abstainer groups.

These studies, like almost all of the research linking moderate alcohol intake to reduced heart disease risk, are observational studies. They do not prove cause and effect, and it's unlikely anyone will ever do a randomized, controlled trial to test the alcohol and heart health hypothesis. In an editorial accompanying the studies, Dr. Arthur L. Klatsky of Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland notes that "compelling, absolute proof that persons at coronary artery disease risk obtain benefit from light-moderate drinking will not appear soon." The decision on whether one benefits from light drinking, he says, should depend largely on the individual's health history and consultation with a doctor.

The papers are published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The ACC has a new consumer Web site with information on heart health.

Another study published Monday found that people who engage in risky drinking report much worse health practices, such as poor diets, smoking, failing to wear seatbelts and failing to visit the doctor regularly.

Researchers from Kaiser Permanente studied 7,884 men and women and found heavy drinking was especially harmful to women in how it affected other aspects of their health.

However, this study also found that moderate drinking -- defined as one to three drinks daily -- was associated with better health.

The study is published Monday in the journal Addiction Research & Theory.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: David Silverman / Getty Images