Moderate Drinking May Protect Against Stroke, Regardless of Race or Gender, Research Finds

A study of more than 3,100 New Yorkers found that a drink or two a day reduced the risk by around 50 percent
Jan 24, 2006

Those who unwind from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan life with a glass of wine or two in the evening may be doing more than relaxing. They may be protecting themselves against the risk of having a stroke, a new study from Columbia University found. Furthermore, this held true for men and women alike, as well as for whites, blacks and Hispanics.

"Our results demonstrate a strong protective effect of moderate alcohol consumption on risk of stroke in a multiethnic, elderly population," wrote the authors in the January issue of Stroke.

The research found that moderate drinking, defined as up to two servings of alcohol daily, reduced the average risk of ischemic stroke, which is caused by blood clots, by around 50 percent. Any more than two servings per day, however, and drinkers' risk returned to a level similar to that of nondrinkers.

The team of researchers, led by Dr. Mitchell Elkind, noted that moderate drinking has also been found to protect against coronary heart disease. (For example, one study reported that it helped those who already suffer from the disease, while another recorded lower rates of heart disease among women who drank moderately.

Elkind's results are supported by previous research on drinking and stroke, but add new knowledge to the field. Few earlier studies on alcohol examined the stroke risk for blacks—and those that did produced conflicting results—while the researchers found no prior information available on Hispanics.

The study began in 1993, when Elkind and his team enrolled members of the public who were over the age of 40 and lived in Manhattan. The participants were randomly called and asked to report to Columbia University for an exam and interview. To qualify, residents needed to have consistent drinking habits and have lived in the city for at least three months. Of those who responded, 3,176 were called for follow-up interviews every year until 2001.

The researchers recorded the participants' eating, drinking and smoking habits. A drink was defined as 4 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of spirits. Subjects who didn't drink or had no more than one drink per month were considered nondrinkers. Those who drank up to two servings a day were considered moderate drinkers. Anyone who consumed more than that was considered a heavy drinker.

At each interview, participants were asked if they had been diagnosed with a stroke or had strokelike symptoms in the prior year. If they reported the latter, they were brought to the university hospital to verify whether they, in fact, had had a stroke. In cases where the subject died, the cause was determined and added to the analysis. By comparing the rates of stroke across the categories of alcohol consumption, the scientists came up with a risk factor to apply to the remaining subjects.

Moderate drinkers fared best, showing around a 50 percent lower risk than nondrinkers. Heavy drinkers, on the other hand, showed only a 5 percent lower risk compared with nondrinkers. Elkind said that this figure was not significant and added that heavier drinkers are at higher risk for other problems such as liver disease, accidents and addiction.

When the participant data was examined separately by gender, men who drank moderately had a 25 percent lower risk than men who didn't drink and women who drank moderately had a 41 percent lower risk than nondrinking women. These rates were even further reduced, in some cases by up to 45 percent, when the subjects did not smoke.

When moderate drinkers were examined by race, Hispanics, who made up more than half the participants in the study, showed around a 50 percent lower risk of stroke than their nondrinking Hispanic counterparts. The same was true for whites, who made up 20 percent of the volunteers. Blacks, who made up the remaining 30 percent, showed around a 25 percent lower risk of stroke.

Elkind said he saw no need to look at types of alcoholic drinks separately. "We have analyzed the difference between wine, beer and liquor in a previous paper and found no difference," he said. "From our data it appeared that alcohol, rather than the specific beverage, was the key." He acknowledged that other studies have suggested a particular benefit from wine (for example, a smaller CDC study found that wine in particular provided added stroke protection for women), but concluded, "I think that most of the data would argue that it is alcohol itself that is protective."

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