Alcohol lowers heart disease risk by almost a third

24 November, 2009

Regularly drinking alcohol of any type lowers the risk of serious heart disease by almost a third – at least in men, indicates Spanish research of more than 41,000 adults published ahead of print in the journal Heart.

Spain is the world’s third largest producer of beer and wine and its per capita consumption of alcohol places it sixth in the world. But it also has one of the lowest death rates from coronary heart disease in the world.

The research team assessed the alcohol intake of more than 15,500 men and almost 26,000 women aged between 29 and 69, from their responses to food frequency questionnaires.

These asked respondents to quantify how much of a certain foodstuff or beverage they ate/drank over the preceding year.

Information on lifestyle, including exercise and tobacco use, and other potential risk factors for heart disease, such as obesity and high cholesterol, was also gathered.

Total alcohol intake was calculated by multiplying the average ethanol content of a standard glass of whatever type of alcohol they drank daily/ weekly.

All the participants were taking part in the Spanish cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (EPIC), which involves half a million adults in 10 Western European countries.

Respondents’ health was then tracked for an average of 10 years, during which time 609 ‘coronary events’ occurred, 481 of which were in men and 128 of which were in women.

For men, those drinking moderate, high and very high levels of alcohol all had a lower risk of coronary heart disease.

For those classified as former drinkers, the risk was 10% lower; for those drinking little (0-5 g/day), the risk was 35% lower, for moderate drinkers (5-30 g/day), the risk was 54% lower, and for high (30-90 g/day) and very high drinkers (more than 90 g/day) it was 50% lower.

Women also benefitted from alcohol intake, but the effects were not statistically significant, possibly due to lower numbers of ‘coronary events’ they experienced than men, say the authors.

Women process alcohol differently, and female hormones protect against heart disease in younger age groups, they point out.

Overall, the type of alcohol drunk did not affect the level of protection afforded, but protection was greater for those drinking moderate to high levels of alcohol, which included beverages other than just wine.

The World Health Organization estimates that around 2 billion people around the globe drink alcohol, over 76 million of whom have ill health as a result, caution the authors. Alcohol also causes 1.8 million deaths every year (just over 3% of the total) and more than 58 million years of disability (4% of the total).

The paper is available in full here.

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Source: BMJ