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Women Who Drink Moderately Face Lower Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death

New study shows clear benefit for light and moderate consumption

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: October 27, 2010

Women who drink in moderation face a significantly lower risk of sudden cardiac death than nondrinkers, according to an October study in Heart Rhythm. According to the authors, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, "Light to moderate alcohol intake may be considered part of a healthy lifestyle for overall chronic disease prevention including the prevention of sudden cardiac death."

Sudden cardiac arrest is as frightening as it sounds. Typically, with no warning, the heart simply stops. The heart is no longer able to pump blood to the rest of the body, and in over 90 percent of victims, death occurs. This is usually caused when the electrical impulses in the heart become rapid or irregular. According to the study, full cardiac arrest normally occurs within one hour of any noticeable symptoms. The American Heart Association estimates that nearly 300,000 such cardiac arrests occur in the United States each year.

Sudden cardiac death is not the same as a heart attack. A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, is the interruption of blood supply to a part of the heart, causing heart cells to die. That can weaken the heart, keeping it from pumping blood effectively, and can eventually trigger cardiac arrest and possible death. But it is usually not as severe and sudden.

The study authors say prior cardiovascular research focused mainly on men and mainly on heart attacks—rarely on sudden cardiac death. But in the studies that did focus on sudden cardiac death, men who drank light-to-moderate amounts of alcohol showed the least amount of risk, and the current researchers wanted to know if the same might be true for women.

The scientists pulled data on 85,067 women who participated in the larger Nurses' Health Study, which began following registered nurses ages 30 to 55 in 1976. In that study, major medical events and cause of death are recorded, and drinking habits are updated regularly.

The researchers found that women who consume one to two alcoholic beverages daily were 46 to 42 percent less likely, respectively, to experience sudden cardiac death than abstainers. At three drinks per day, their risks began to pull even with nondrinkers. (Four ounces of wine was classified as one drink.)

Light and moderate drinking women were also more than 60 percent less likely to develop fatal heart disease and also had a lower risk of suffering a heart attack.

However, the scientists found no difference when different types of alcoholic drinks were examined separately. They also say that it may not be the alcohol behind the promising results—women who drink moderately may enjoy a healthier lifestyle.

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