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Health Watch: Wine Is a Healthy Heart Habit for Women

Also, researchers find wine poses less of a cirrhosis risk than beer or spirits

Esther Mobley, Douglas De Jesus
Posted: February 19, 2015

What's the No. 1 killer of American women? Cardiovascular disease—and while overall mortality rates from heart disease have declined in the U.S. in the past four decades, the rates among women have stayed relatively constant in recent years. But an analysis of a sizable study of young women has found that six specific habits can lower their risk. And one of those habits is drinking wine in moderation.

The analysis, conducted by researchers from multiple institutions, including Indiana University and the Harvard School of Public Health, looked at data drawn from the Nurses' Health Study II, a wide-ranging study of 88,940 American women, conducted from 1991 to 2011 and supported by the National Institutes of Health. The women were ages 27 to 44 at the study's start and repeatedly completed questionnaires on their health and lifestyle habits.

The analysis found that women who followed six healthy habits were significantly less likely to develop cardiovascular disease. Moderate alcohol consumption was one factor—up to one drink per day, on average. The other five behaviors were not smoking, maintaining a low body-mass index, engaging in at least 2.5 hours of physical activity per week, watching no more than seven hours of television per week and eating a healthy and balanced diet.

The researchers believe that 73 percent of the coronary heart disease cases recorded during the study, and 46 percent of cardiovascular disease incidences, could have been avoided if all the subjects had followed the six lifestyle habits. "Adhering to a healthy lifestyle was also associated with a significantly reduced risk of going on to develop heart disease among women who had already developed a cardiovascular disease risk factor such as diabetes or hypertension or hypercholesterolemia," said Dr. Andrea K. Chomistek, the lead author and an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Indiana University at Bloomington, in a statement.

Lowering the risk of heart failure

The Nurses' Health Study II is not the first to examine the effects of alcohol, and wine in particular, on cardiovascular disease. But one aspect of alcohol's relationship to heart health has often been overlooked: the effects of drinking on heart failure. Now, researchers from Harvard Medical School have published findings that show moderate alcohol consumption may lead to a lower risk of developing heart failure.

Heart failure is a chronic condition in which the heart cannot pump as much blood as the body needs. Common symptoms include fatigue, swollen legs and ankles, and shortness of breath. Alcohol is a known toxin, but Dr. Scott D. Solomon, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and senior physician at Brigham & Women's Hospital, decided to take a look at the implications of drinking in moderation.

"What we found was that those who drank moderately—so this is really up to seven drinks a week—had a reduced risk of heart failure," Solomon told Wine Spectator. "For men, the protective effect appeared to go up to about two drinks a day, and for women it topped out at about one drink per day."

Solomon and colleagues looked at data collected in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study, sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) from 14,629 adults in four U.S. communities, roughly half men and half women, who were between 45 and 64 years old at the study's start. Their alcohol consumption habits and cardiovascular health were tracked over 25 years.

The results indicated that people who drank up to seven drinks per week were less likely than abstainers to develop heart failure, though the results were more pronounced in men than in women. Beyond seven drinks per week, the risk of heart failure per se did not increase, but subjects’ chances of dying from other causes went up.

Although the subsection who only drank wine—686 of the subjects—was not large enough to draw strong conclusions about the specific effects of wine, Solomon reports that the data did suggest a lower risk than among those who drank other alcoholic beverages.

Most likely, Solomon said, alcohol has a beneficial effect on heart failure risk for the same reasons it can protect against other cardiovascular maladies. “Alcohol does change our lipid profile,” he noted, adding that it can raise good cholesterol, affect blood clotting and administer antioxidants. He is now looking at how alcohol affected other measures of cardiac function in the same study subjects.

Bad for the liver? That might depend on what you drink

It's accepted wisdom that alcohol is bad for your liver. But a recent American study found that a compound in red wine may improve the health of patients suffering from fatty liver disease. Now new research from Denmark suggests that the ways in which you drink may mitigate the risk of developing cirrhosis, the final stage of chronic liver disease.

Most previous research on cirrhosis focused on the effects of heavy drinking and binge drinking, but this study looked at subtler distinctions among drinkers, and at different sorts of drinking habits. "For the first time, our study points to a risk difference between drinking daily and drinking five or six days a week in the general population," said study author Dr. Gro Askgaard, of Rigshospitalet Copenhagan University Hospital, in a statement.

Askgaard and his team examined 55,917 Danish subjects for 18 years. Participants were ages 50 to 64 at the study's start. The results show that three measures—frequency of drinking, lifetime patterns of drinking and types of alcohol consumed—can help predict risk of cirrhosis. Men who drank every day suffered a higher risk compared with those drinking two to four days per week. Being a current drinker increased the risk of cirrhosis, but past drinking habits from participants' twenties and thirties did not affect their risk. Finally, wine consumption was associated with lower chances of cirrhosis, compared with equivalent volumes of alcohol from beer and liquor.

“Since the details of alcohol-induced liver injury are unknown, we can only speculate that the reason may be that daily alcohol exposure worsens liver damage or inhibits liver regeneration,” said Askgaard. At lower doses, however, it is possible that alcohol may exert some protective effects.

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