Alcohol: A Double-Edged Sword for Heart and Health, from the Harvard Heart Letter

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Alcohol's benefits to cardiovascular health are well known, but even moderate consumption increases stroke risk.

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A huge study showing that moderate, prudent drinking protects the heart and arteries raises a big question: What should we do with this information? In what sounds like a contradictory conclusion, the researchers say their findings "lend further support for limits on alcohol consumption." That makes sense, reports the October 2011 Harvard Heart Letter, when you consider the complexity of alcohol's effects on heart disease, stroke, and other aspects of health.

In the study, which included more than two million men and women followed for an average of 11 years, moderate alcohol use (compared to no alcohol use)

  •     reduced the risk of a new diagnosis of coronary artery disease by 29%
  •     reduced the risk of dying from any cardiovascular disease by 25%
  •     reduced the risk of dying from a heart attack or coronary artery disease by 25%
  •     reduced the risk of dying from any cause by 13%.
  •     reduced the risk of having an ischemic (clot-caused) stroke by 8%
  •     increased the risk of dying from a stroke by 6%
  •     increased the risk of having a hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke by 14%.

The amount of alcohol consumed influenced the effect. For coronary artery disease and death from it, any amount of alcohol—from just under one-half drink per day on up—reduced heart disease risk by about 25%. But this was offset by stroke risk: at four drinks per day, the risk of having a stroke was 62% higher than it was with no alcohol use, and the risk of dying from a stroke was 44% higher. The lowest risk for any cause of death was at one drink per day.

While a drink a day may be good for the heart, many people drink much more than that. Excessive drinking is a major cause of preventable deaths in the United States and contributes to liver disease, a variety of cancers, and other health problems. Too much alcohol can dissolve the best of intentions and the closest relationships. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that 4 in 10 people who drink alcohol are heavy drinkers or at risk of becoming one.

If alcohol affected only the coronary arteries, a drink a day might be good medicine. But it affects almost every body part, and the amount consumed determines the ultimate outcome. That means careful consideration is needed for this two-sided beverage.

Read the full-length article: “More to the story than alcohol = heart protection”

Also in this issue:

  •     Protecting blood vessels helps prevent dementia
  •     Apps for heart health
  •     Angioplasty via wrist artery is safe and effective
  •     Is it a good idea to wear compression stockings on a long-haul flight?

The Harvard Heart Letter is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $29 per year. Subscribe at http://www.health.harvard.edu/heart or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).

Media: Contact Raquel Schott at Raquel_Schott @ hms.harvard.edu for a complimentary copy of the newsletter, or to receive our press releases directly.

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