People in their mid-40s to mid-60s who decide to take up moderate drinking, even after a lifetime of abstention, are likely to have healthier hearts when compared to lifelong nondrinkers, according to a study in the March issue of the American Journal of Medicine. In addition, those who chose wine as their primary alcoholic beverage were less likely to experience cardiovascular troubles such as heart attack or coronary heart disease than beer or spirits drinkers.
"While caution is clearly warranted, the current study demonstrated that new moderate drinking lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease without an increase in mortality in a four-year follow-up period," said Dana King, M.D., lead author of the study and a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. "The findings suggest that, for carefully selected individuals, a heart-healthy diet may include limited alcohol consumption even among individuals who have not included alcohol previously."
According to the text of the study, previous research has shown a beneficial effect on heart function from moderate alcohol consumption, defined as one drink a day for women and two for men. However, studies usually have not included those who started drinking after a certain age, which physicians typically do not recommend. "The American Heart Association clearly states that nondrinkers should not begin drinking alcohol in middle age due to possible counter-balancing ill consequences of alcohol consumption," the study's authors wrote. However, since some previous studies have shown benefits in initiating moderate alcohol consumption in midlife, King and his team set out to see if new research may yield similar results.
The team gathered information on 7,697 men and women aged 45 to 64 at the time of their enrollment from 1987 to 1989 in a larger study of 15,792 people that examined the progression of atherosclerosis, a disease characterized by arterial inflammation. That study ended in 1998, with a final follow-up four years later, and included all of the necessary data on blood pressure, cholesterol, levels of exercise and drinking habits.
The scientists looked at the information from 442 participants who claimed that they started to drink in moderation at some point during the study, 133 of whom said they drank primarily wine. King and his team then examined the rates of recorded cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks, during the study period, and compared the incidents to drinking habits.
King's team found that those who began drinking moderately during the study were 38 percent less likely to have an observable heart-related health issue than those who reported lifetime nondrinking. Those who took up heavier drinking, by comparison, were 42 percent more likely to have cardiovascular troubles than abstainers.
When the scientists separated the results according to beverage preference, they found that for the 133 subjects who reported drinking primarily wine, their risk of suffering a cardiovascular event was 68 percent less than that of nondrinkers. Beer and spirits drinkers benefited as well, but showed only a 29 percent lower risk of experiencing a heart problem. King said that the additional observed cardiovascular benefit for those who begin drinking wine in middle age was "consistent with recent studies showing a slight advantage to wine drinkers."
Unfortunately, the study did not track the subjects after the four-year follow-up, meaning that any longer-term impact on the subjects' health from beginning their moderate alcohol consumption could not be measured. "Any such benefit must be weighed with caution against the known ill consequences of alcohol consumption," King said. He added that people should ask their doctors about the benefits of responsible alcohol consumption.