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Even in Middle Age, Starting to Drink May Lower Heart Risks

Wine is better than liquor, study says; a healthy lifestyle is even better, doctor adds

FRIDAY, March 7 (HealthDay News) -- If you start drinking moderate amounts of alcohol in middle age, particularly wine, you can lower your risk of heart attack by up to 68 percent, compared to nondrinkers, a new study finds.

While previous research had suggested that moderate alcohol consumption was good for the heart, it hadn't been clear whether starting drinking later in life confers a benefit.

"Among middle-aged people who began to drink alcohol in the middle age, we found considerable cardiovascular benefit," said lead researcher Dr. Dana E. King, a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina's Department of Family Medicine.

Current American Heart Association guidelines suggest that moderate drinking may be good for you, King noted. "But if you don't currently drink, you shouldn't start, because of the possible negative consequences of alcohol," he said, summarizing the guidelines.

But this new study will challenge that policy, King said. "The study shows, in a natural experiment, what did happen when people started to drink in middle age," he said. "Indeed, there was a considerable cardiovascular health benefit without paying the penalty in mortality or in higher blood pressure. In fact, it improved the cholesterol profile."

The findings are published in the March issue of The American Journal of Medicine.

For the new research, King and his colleagues collected data on 7,697 people taking part in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study. All were between 45 and 64 years old and non-drinkers at the start of the trial.

During the study, 6 percent of the participants began moderate drinking, which was defined as one drink a day or less for women and two drinks a day or less for men.

After four years, those men and women who became moderate drinkers reduced their risk of developing cardiovascular disease or having a heart attack by 38 percent, compared to the non-drinkers.

However, the type of alcohol did matter, King said. "Wine-only drinkers had 68 percent fewer cardiovascular events, whereas the drinkers of beer, liquor and mixed drinks had only a 21 percent benefit, and that was not [statistically] significant," he said.

"A sip of wine with dinner is part of a healthy lifestyle, even if you haven't been doing it previously," he added.

King cautioned that starting to drink isn't a wise choice for everyone. "There's a small percentage of people who, when they start to drink, will drink too much," he said. "People should discuss this with their physician if they have liver disease or a family history of alcoholism or other medical problems."

But Dr. Gregg C. Fonarow, a professor of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, is one heart expert who doesn't think that studies have conclusively proven that alcohol reduces your cardiovascular risk.

People should stick to controlling known risk factors for heart disease -- such as cholesterol and blood pressure levels -- before taking up drinking, he advised.

"A number of observational studies have suggested moderate alcohol consumption is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular" problems, Fonarow said. "However, it has not been established whether it is the alcohol consumption itself or other factors that distinguish those with moderate alcohol consumption from non-drinkers which account for the lower cardiovascular risk."

The new study offered evidence that moderate alcohol consumption was linked to lower heart risks, but there was no difference in overall mortality between drinkers and non-drinkers, he noted.

"The findings suggest that for non-drinkers, adopting mild alcohol consumption may have cardiovascular benefits," Fonarow said. "However, until the potential cardiovascular benefits of moderate alcohol consumption are tested in a prospective randomized trial, there will continue to be debate as to whether this is advisable or not.

"Individuals wishing to lower their cardiovascular risk should stick to what is proven and recommended by the American Heart Association, including maintaining a healthy blood pressure, weight, and cholesterol levels, exercising, and avoid smoking," he advised.

More information

For more on the benefits of alcohol, visit the American Heart Association.

SOURCES: Dana E. King, M.D., professor, Department of Family Medicine, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston; Gregg C. Fonarow, M.D., professor, cardiology, University of California, Los Angeles; March 2008, American Journal of Medicine

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