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A Little Alcohol May Help the Heart: Studies

By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

SUNDAY, Nov. 14 (HealthDay News) -- Moderate drinking may be good for your health -- better, in fact, than not drinking at all, according to a trio of studies presented Sunday at the American Heart Association annual meeting in Chicago.

Not only did male coronary bypass patients fare better with a little alcohol, but women's health was also boosted by a cocktail now and then.

Still, while the studies are "reassuring," they should not be seen as "a cause for action or change of patterns," said Dr. Sharonne Hayes, a cardiologist and director of the Women's Heart Clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "We do have to be cautious. This is not [shown to be] a cause-and-effect relationship."

Men who had undergone coronary artery bypass surgery (CABG) to circumvent clogged arteries who drank two to three alcoholic beverages a day had a 25 percent lower risk of having to undergo another procedure or suffering a heart attack, stroke or even dying, compared to teetotalers, researchers found.

Too much alcohol appear to have a negative effect, however: Men with left ventricular dysfunction (problems with the heart's pumping mechanism) who drank more than six drinks a day had double the risk of dying from a heart problem compared with people who didn't drink at all.

"A light amount of alcohol intake, about two drinks a day, should not be discouraged in [male] patients undergoing CABG, but the benefit is less evident in patients with severe pump dysfunction," said study lead author Dr. Umberto Benedetto, of the University of Rome La Sapienza, Italy, who spoke Sunday during a news conference at the meeting.

Light-to-moderate drinking for women is defined as about one glass a day and, for men, two glasses daily.

The so-called BACCO (Bypass surgery, Alcohol Consumption on Clinical Outcomes) study, named for Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, followed 2,000 bypass patients (about 80 percent men and 20 percent women) for three-and-a-half years.

"What the study does say is that people who drink a lot, just as we've seen before, increase their risk, and particularly because we know that alcohol directly affects heart pumping function. It decreases contraction of heart muscle," Hayes said.

Benedetto said the study results need to be confirmed over a longer follow-up period, with more patients and control participants.

A second study presented Sunday found that for women, the benefit of one libation a day came in the form of lowered stroke risk.

"Low levels of alcohol may be slightly protective," Hayes said. "It's not strong enough to tell people to drink. But it is reassuring that people who do drink do not increase their risk of stroke."

Other research presented Sunday found that women's overall health also benefited from light-to-moderate drinking of alcohol.

Among almost 14,000 nurses participating in the U.S. government-funded Nurses Health Study, women who drank moderately at mid-life were more likely to be healthy at 70, meaning no major chronic diseases or physical disabilities and no dementia.

Not surprisingly, women who drank regularly (though still modest amounts) were more likely to have "successful survival" than binge drinkers or even people who only drank now and then, the study found.

"If you like a glass of wine every night with your dinner when you're in your 40s, that might be associated with being healthier at 70, not just alive but truly healthier," Hayes said.

But talking to patients about alcohol can be tricky, doctors acknowledged.

"If someone is already drinking a modest amount of alcohol -- one glass a day for women and up to two a day for men -- I don't discourage them or talk them out of drinking because it seems like there may be some benefit and little harm at those doses," said Dr. Erin D. Michos, assistant professor of medicine in the division of cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "For those who don't drink I don't encourage them to take up alcohol."

Added Dr. Russell V. Luepker, Mayo professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and a spokesman for the American Heart Association: "American Heart Association policy is not to encourage drinking. No one has ever found that high alcohol intake is good for you."

Both Michos and Luepker also spoke at the Sunday news conference.

More information

The American Heart Association has recommendations on alcohol consumption.

SOURCES: Sharonne Hayes, M.D., cardiologist and director, Women's Heart Clinic, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.; Nov. 14, 2010, news conference with Umberto Benedetto, M.D., Ph.D., University of Rome La Sapienza, Italy; Erin D. Michos, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, division of cardiology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore; and Russell V. Luepker, M.D., Mayo professor of epidemiology and community health, University of Minnesota School of Public Health and spokesman, American Heart Association; study presentations, Nov. 14, 2010, American Heart Association annual meeting, Chicago

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