A glass or two of wine a day may be good for circulation in the legs, according to a study published in the Jan. 1 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology. According to the research, those who consumed moderate amounts of alcohol showed a lower risk than nondrinkers of developing lower extremity arterial disease (LEAD), a condition in which the blood vessels in the leg become damaged.
Several previous studies have shown that light to moderate drinkers have lower risks of heart disease than nondrinkers. However, little research has been conducted specifically on alcohol consumption and LEAD, which afflicts about 10 million adult Americans. In people with LEAD, the inner lining of the arterial blood vessels in the legs becomes damaged, potentially leading to a buildup of cholesterol, which can impede blood flow and harden the tissue, creating atherosclerosis. As LEAD progresses, the blocked arteries can cause discomfort, cramps or pain in the hips, thighs or calves, especially while exercising.
"LEAD has been understudied relative to heart disease and stroke, but it affects about 10 to 15 percent of older adults and is increasingly recognized to have consequences beyond the classic pain with walking," said noted alcohol-and-health researcher Kenneth Mukamal, M.D., of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, who led the study. He suspected that reasonable alcohol consumption could be associated with healthier leg arteries, as other studies have shown alcohol to have a beneficial effect on heart-disease risks and decreasing the risk of hypertension.
The researchers pulled data on 5,635 participants in the larger Cardiovascular Health Study, conducted from 1989 to 1999, which examined Medicare-eligible adults living in four different U.S. areas. In that study, subjects reported their weekly drinking habits, and were classified as consuming less than one drink per week, one to 13 per week or 14 or more drinks per week. During the course of the study, the volunteers underwent leg-artery examinations by clinicians using a standard test that measures blood pressure at the ankle both before and after a five-minute treadmill workout. A total of 172 cases of LEAD were documented during the study. Mukamal and his team then compared those cases to the drinking habits of that study's participants.
The researchers found that those who drank one to 13 servings of alcohol per week were 44 percent less likely to develop LEAD than nondrinkers. Those who drank less than one drink per week or 14 drinks per week or more showed a similar LEAD risk as nondrinkers.
According to Dr. R. Curtis Ellison, professor of medicine and public health at Boston University Medical School, the results of the Mukamal study were to be expected. "These findings support many other papers suggesting that moderate alcohol intake may lower the risk of vascular disease at sites other than the heart and the brain," he said.
Mukamal noted that LEAD, and potential preventive measures, are only just now coming to the full attention of the medical research community, due in part to the rising number of cases being diagnosed every year. While his study helps shed some light on the impact alcohol consumption may have on the ailment, Mukamal said that more research is still needed among people with LEAD.