Consuming two drinks per day can reduce the risk of heart attack by about 25 percent compared to abstaining, according to a report from researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.
"This is a significant effect," said lead researcher Eric Rimm, associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition. "It's about the same risk reduction for heart attack that a person who was overweight by 30 pounds would achieve by losing those 30 pounds."
While men appear to derive the maximum benefit and minimum risk from two drinks (the equivalent of 30 grams, or 1 ounce, of ethyl alcohol) per day, the study recommends a single drink per day for women because of evidence that a greater alcohol intake increases the risk of breast cancer. The authors found equal benefits for beer, wine and spirits.
The study, "Moderate Alcohol Intake and Lower Risk of Coronary Heart Disease," was published in the Dec. 11 issue of the British Medical Journal. The authors examined nearly 25 years worth of research on the subject, ultimately reviewing 42 previous clinical studies in which alcohol was provided to participants in experimental doses. They used only studies on individuals without diagnosed coronary heart disease, diabetes or alcohol dependence, and in which no more than 100 grams of alcohol were consumed per day.
The Harvard researchers identified two mechanisms by which alcohol reduces the risk of coronary heart disease: by increasing the level of HDL, the "good" cholesterol that slows the buildup of artery-clogging atherosclerosis, and by reducing blood clotting, which can also clog arteries.
"We don't recommend that people who don't drink begin drinking for medicinal purposes," said Rimm. "However, for those who drink moderately, this new evidence suggests that they are reducing their risk of heart attack by about a quarter."
Although consuming more than two drinks per day showed even greater benefits in terms of cholesterol and blood clotting, Rimm said that those higher consumption levels are not recommended because they put people at risk for other health conditions, such as various cancers, high blood pressure, alcoholism and bleeding disorders.
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