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Health Watch: Moderate Drinking Found to Significantly Lower Heart Attack Risk

Also, bacteria in wine may hold probiotic benefits, and cigarette taxes dampen sales of spirits but not wine

Esther Mobley
Posted: October 6, 2014

Men can drastically reduce their risk of heart attack by leading a healthy lifestyle that includes moderate alcohol consumption, according to a new study from Sweden. Researchers at the Institute of Environmental Medicine at the Karolinksa Institute in Stockholm conducted a long-term study of Swedish men, and their results show that a man's lifestyle in five categories, including diet, exercise and smoking, have a big effect on heart health.

They found that moderate alcohol consumption reduced subjects' risk of heart problems by 11 percent, while moderate alcohol consumption combined with a healthy diet reduced the risk by 35 percent. "It is not surprising that healthy lifestyle choices would lead to a reduction in heart attacks," said Agneta Akesson, Ph.D., lead author of the study, in a statement. "What is surprising is how drastically the risk dropped due to these factors."

For the study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, a group of more than 20,000 men, ages 45 to 79 and living in central Sweden, completed a questionnaire in 1997, providing information about their behavior in five categories: diet, alcohol consumption, smoking habits, physical activity and overweight status. None of the men had a history of cancer, heart problems or diabetes at the outset.

During 11 years of follow-up surveys, 1,361 subjects experienced myocardial infarctions, also known as heart attacks. The authors found that low-risk behavior in all of the five categories was associated with an 86 percent reduced risk of having a heart attack. Only 1 percent of study subjects, however, practiced healthy behaviors in all five.

Wine beat exercise in the findings. Moderate alcohol consumption, defined as 10 to 30 grams of alcohol per day, or approximately one to three typical glasses of wine, was associated with a greater reduction in risk of coronary events than regular physical activity.

The authors concluded that approximately four out of five heart attacks could have been prevented if all men had followed ideal healthy lifestyle practices.

Wine Bacteria Can Act as Probiotics

What do yogurt and wine have in common? For one thing, they're both fermented products, which means there is (at one point in their production, at least) a host of living microorganisms in them. Some microorganisms, called probiotics, confer health benefits when consumed. Yogurt can convey probiotic benefits from lactic acid bacteria (LAB) to the human body and, according to new research from scientists in Spain, so can wine.

The scientists, from the Unversidad Autónoma de Madrid, examined whether 11 different strains of lactic acid bacteria used in winemaking (including Oenoccus oeni, the bacterium mainly responsible for malolactic fermentation) might be able to provide probiotic benefits to humans. To test this, they isolated LAB strains from red wine early in the malolactic fermentation process and then performed in vitro experiments to see whether the strains could survive the harsh conditions of the human mouth, stomach and intestines. If the bacteria were able to stay alive in those environments, the scientists reasoned, they should be able to act as probiotics when consumed.

Sure enough, when exposed to lysozyme (present in saliva and damaging to cell walls), gastric juice (present in the stomach, with a very low pH) and bile (present in the intestine, with a very high pH), the lactic acid bacteria survived, suggesting that the living bacteria would indeed act as a probiotic. (The team published their findings online in the journal Food Microbiology.)

So does drinking red wine help your gut as much as a bowl of yogurt? Not quite: Unfortunately, sulfites, which are used in the winemaking process, can render just about all of wine’s lactic acid bacteria lifeless. Nevertheless, study author Dolores González de Llano said in a statement, wine bacteria "could be isolated from wine in order to be commercialized as probiotics, or added to foods."

Smoking Restrictions Linked to Reduced Beer and Spirits Consumption, But Not Wine

What happens to people's drinking habits when states attempt to discourage cigarette smoking? A new study from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis shows that when states increase cigarette taxes and restrict smoking in public places, overall alcohol consumption goes down—but wine consumption doesn't change.

"Because smoking and drinking can go hand in hand, we wanted to see whether cigarette excise taxes and smoke-free air policies also impact alcohol consumption," Melissa Krauss, M.P.H., lead author of the study, told Wine Spectator. Krauss and her colleagues used a mathematical model to determine per capita alcohol consumption among different U.S. states from 1980 through 2009, accounting for state prices of cigarette packs and scoring states' smoke-free air laws based on their strictness.

They found that a 1 percent increase in the price of a pack of cigarettes was associated with small reductions in overall alcohol consumption, including a 0.1 percent decrease in beer consumption and a 1.9 percent decrease in spirits consumption. A 1 percent increase in the strength of a state's smoke-free air policy, similarly, was associated with a 1.1 percent decrease in total alcohol consumption. However, neither of the two policies was shown to affect wine consumption.

The study authors conclude that a 20 percent rise in cigarette price could reduce per capita drinking by about 2 percent. (Their estimates are for per capita consumption in the entire population, not only among smokers.)

"We weren't surprised by the lack of an association between the tobacco policies and wine consumption, given prior research that has shown that wine drinkers are actually less likely to smoke," Krauss said. She noted that wine drinkers have been shown to practice a range of healthy behaviors compared with beer and spirits drinkers. "Perhaps those who prefer wine are a bit more health conscious to begin with, which corresponds with being a nonsmoker."

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