Monday, December 30, 2002

NYTimes -- Evidence Mounting That Moderate Drinking Is Healthful

The cardiac benefits of low-dose alcohol are evident in study after study. All over the world, moderate drinkers have healthier hearts than teetotalers, with fewer heart attacks from fatty plaque clogging the heart's arteries and blocking blood flow.

"The science supporting the protective role of alcohol is indisputable; no one questions it any more," said Dr. Curtis Ellison, a professor of medicine and public health at the Boston University School of Medicine. "There have been hundreds of studies, all consistent."

In a study of more than 80,000 American women, those who drank moderately had only half the heart attack risk of those who did not drink at all, even if they were slim, did not smoke and exercised daily. Moderate drinking was about as good for the heart as an hour of exercise a day. Not drinking at all was as bad for the heart as morbid obesity.

The key to maximizing the benefits from any form of alcohol may be to take small quantities regularly "like any drug," Dr. Rimm said — a glass with every evening meal, rather than half a dozen glasses only on Saturday nights.

Recent research has shown that alcohol can benefit other organs as well as the heart. Moderate drinkers seem to have fewer strokes that result when the brain's arteries become clogged with fatty deposits. They are less likely to develop fatty plaques clogging the large arteries to the legs, which can lead to incapacitating leg cramps, gangrene or, at worst, amputation.

A large study from the Netherlands reported in The Lancet medical journal early this year showed that moderate drinkers over age 55 had about a 40 percent lower risk of developing dementia than nondrinkers, possibly because they were spared the multiple small strokes, which can mimic Alzheimer's disease in the elderly.

But for every one of alcohol's health benefits there is an equal and opposite risk if a single glass turns into three or four.

For many people moderate drinking has absolutely no benefit at all, Dr. Klatsky, a senior consultant in cardiology, said. This applies to all adolescents: teenagers have a negligible risk of heart disease and for them the risks of heavy drinking vastly outweigh any benefits of moderate drinking. The same generally applies to men under 40 and women under 50, except for those with known heart disease risks.

Take a hypothetical man in his 50's who has already had a minor heart attack and has been frightened into doing everything in his power to protect his heart — losing weight, watching his fat intake, giving up cigarettes — for that man, forgoing a nightly glass of wine might actually raise his risk of recurrent heart problems, undermining all his good intentions.

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