For decades now, scientific research has found evidence that moderate alcohol consumption can lower the risks of cardiovascular disease. But how alcohol lowers the risk is still not fully understood. A preliminary study, presented at the American Heart Association’s annual conference in New Orleans this week, suggests a new possibility: that moderate drinking is linked with a slower decline in high-density lipoproteins (HDL)—the so-called good cholesterol—in our blood as we age.
HDL is considered "good" cholesterol because it helps remove the low-density lipoproteins (LDL)—the "bad" cholesterol that causes plaque deposits that can lead to heart disease—from the bloodstream.
The study, conducted by a team at Penn State University, observed 80,081 healthy adults in China over a period of six years. Based on surveys about alcohol consumption, the participants were grouped in three categories: never, past or light drinkers (0 to 0.9 daily servings for men; 0 to 0.4 servings for women), moderate drinkers (1 to 2 daily servings for men; 0.5 to 1 for women) and heavy drinkers (more than 2 daily servings for men; more than 1 for women).
HDL levels were measured at the start of the study, then every two years until the conclusion. The team found that HDL levels decreased over time for all participants, but subjects who drank moderately experienced a slower decline than all other categories. "The most noteworthy result from our study is that the association is umbrella-shaped, which means light to moderate alcohol intake slowed down the decline, but heavy alcohol intake almost eliminated this," lead author Shue Huang told Wine Spectator.
Interestingly, the slowest rates of decline were observed in subjects who primarily drank beer, whereas subjects who drank liquor in light to moderate amounts saw a benefit but heavy liquor drinkers saw none. How about wine? The researchers report that there were not enough wine drinkers in the pool to test the beverage’s correlation with cholesterol, indicating more research is needed.
"More prospective studies are needed to confirm our finding, and also more studies are needed to investigate the underlying mechanism," said Huang.