A study published in the December/January 2008 issue of medical journal Angiology has lent support to the belief that drinking wine responsibly helps reduce the risk of heart disease—and provides greater protection than beer or spirits. The scientists also found that moderate alcohol consumption, in general, is linked to a lower risk of other diseases as well, such as type-2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Study co-author Dr. Dimitri Mikhailidis of the department of clinical biochemistry at the Royal Free Hospital in London, said that the purpose of the study was to obtain an alcohol "dose-related" risk for several diseases, which is uncommon among studies of this kind. "There is no point in reducing the risk of one serious condition if you increase that of another one," said Mikhailidis of the study's design.
The study looked at 4,153 adults in Greece who are participants in a larger, ongoing study that focuses on the identification and treatment of metabolic syndrome, which is a collection of disorders that may lead to heart disease and diabetes. The subjects were chosen from four hospitals and 22 healthcare centers across Greece (the nine other researchers listed as the study co-authors work in some of these treatment centers).
Drinkers in Mikhailidis' study were categorized as mild if they drank one and a half or less drinks per day; moderate drinkers consumed between one and a half and three drinks per day; heavy drinkers consumed about three and a half or more drinks per day. The volunteers were followed from 2003 and, over the course of time if any developed any of the aforementioned ailments, the scientists recorded the incident and categorized the event according to participants' alcohol-consumption habits.
For moderate drinkers, the risk of developing metabolic syndrome was nearly half that for nondrinkers. For mild drinkers the risk was 25 percent less when compared to nondrinkers, while heavy drinkers were 25 percent more likely to develop the ailment. Other diseases, such as heart disease and type-2 diabetes, had a similar pattern as with metabolic syndrome, but to a lesser degree. Moderate drinkers still showed the least amount of risk, at around 40 percent less, while mild drinkers were about 30 percent less likely to develop the disease, when compared to nondrinkers. Heavy drinkers showed a greater risk than nondrinkers, with a 5 percent greater chance.
When looking at heart disease specifically, the scientists found that wine in particular provides the greatest benefit. Moderate wine drinkers were 58 percent less likely to have heart disease, when compared to nondrinkers, while beer and spirits drinkers were 48 percent and 41 percent less likely, respectively. The results were similar, regardless of gender, for mild drinkers. Heavy drinkers showed a higher risk, regardless of beverage type, when compared to nondrinkers.
The risk of hypertension, the study's authors noted, rose with each category of alcohol consumption, with heavy drinkers showing the greatest risk of stroke. However, the researchers suggested that this greater risk among moderate and even mild drinkers exists because of higher salt intake among the participants, because the foods they chose tend to have higher levels of salt compared to the foods eaten by nondrinkers.
Mikhailidis said that the study showed the importance of responsible drinking, and that the results should encourage heavy drinkers to reduce their alcohol intake. Whether or not beverage choice makes a difference is likely a reflection of "local habits," specific to the areas of Greece that were studied, Mikhailidis said, as in some parts of the country people prefer beer, yet they prefer wine in others. More important, the "benefit occurred against the background of a protective Mediterranean diet," which includes one or two alcoholic beverage with meals in the evening, Mikhailidis pointed out.