Drinking a little wine every night may equal more days to your life according to a team of Dutch researchers who presented their study findings Wednesday at the American Heart Association's 47th Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention in Orlando, Fla.
"Our study showed that long-term, light alcohol intake among middle-aged men was associated not only with lower cardiovascular and all-cause death risk, but also with longer life expectancy at age 50," said lead author Martinette Streppel, of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in Bilthoven, Netherlands. "Furthermore, long-term light wine consumption is associated with a further protective effect when compared to that of light-to-moderate alcohol intake of other types."
The greatest protection was found in men who drank about half a glass of wine a day. The results echo the results of a meta-analysis published in 2006, which looked at the lives of more than 1 million people around the world. That study found that light to moderate drinkers live longer than nondrinkers and, especially, heavy drinkers.
According to Streppel, previous studies have linked light to moderate drinking with longer life and better cardiovascular health. However, those studies tended not to look at the different alcoholic beverages separately or to measure the effects of consumption over as long a period of time as this study, which lasted 40 years.
Streppel's research pulled data on 1,373 male participants from the larger Zutphen study (named for the Netherlands town where the population was surveyed), in which men born between 1900 and 1920 were surveyed about their dietary and lifestyle habits on seven occasions over the course of 40 years, from 1960 to 2000. The purpose of the Zutphen research--itself a subset of the larger Seven Countries study--was to measure the effect of lifestyle choices on the risk of chronic diseases.
The study collected information on the men's dietary habits, alcohol consumption levels and the type of beverage the men usually drank, as well as data on their size, cholesterol levels, resting heart rate and smoking habits. The study also recorded the cause of death in the men.
Streppel and her team compared the men's rate and cause of death to their drinking habits. They found that the longest-lived men were those who drank 1.5 ounces of wine per day, or about half a glass. That group was 40 percent less likely to die as young as nondrinkers--and 48 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease in particular.
Moderate drinkers also showed a smaller benefit: Consuming one to two drinks of any type of alcohol per day was associated with a 36 percent lower risk of all-cause death and a 34 percent lower risk of a cardiovascular-related death. The study's authors said this benefit dips off for heavy drinkers, as higher incidents of accidents and alcohol-related diseases rise in relation to higher consumption, though these were not observed in the study.
On average, light and moderate drinkers of any type of alcohol lived 1.6 years longer than nondrinkers. If their beverage of choice was wine, that figure jumped to 3.8 more years than nondrinkers.
While the researchers don't make any specific claims as to why alcohol may provide this benefit, Streppel speculates that "a protective effect of light alcohol intake could be due to an increase in high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, or to a reduction in blood clotting."
While the type of wine was not measured separately in the study, the researchers speculate that red wine may offer more protection than white, since previous research on animals has suggested that the polyphenols found naturally in red wine help block the formation of atherosclerotic plaques--fatty tissue that builds-up in the arteries, causing stroke or heart attack.
Recent studies on one such polyphenol, resveratrol, found that it may extend the life of mice, even when the rodents are dangerously overweight. It may also increase the longevity of tropical killifish, while another study discovered the chemical to improve cardiovascular health.
One of the strengths of her study, Streppel said, was that it looked at lifelong drinking habits, thereby getting a better picture on how alcohol affects the body over the course of four decades. This therefore enables her to make a sound recommendation on drinking habits.
"Those people who already consume alcoholic beverages should do so lightly, one to two glasses per day, and preferably drink wine," Streppel said, but she warned that the results are not an excuse to pick up the practice. "Starting to drink alcohol because of its positive health benefits is not advised."
The American Heart Association also makes this recommendation, stating that there are other tried-and-true methods to see better results, such as proper weight control, sufficient physical activity and healthy eating and smoking cessation. According to the association, there is still no solid, scientific proof that drinking wine or any other alcoholic beverage can replace these conventional measures.
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