Canadian and U.S. researchers report that moderate alcohol consumption seems to reduce 1) the incidence of coronary heart disease, 2) deaths from coronary heart disease, and 3) deaths from all causes. Reduction of death from all causes is a good counter-argument to those who say alcohol is too dangerous because of deaths from drunk driving, alcoholic cirrhosis, and alcohol-related cancers such as many in the esophagus.
Remember, we’re talking here about low to moderate consumption: one drink a day or less for women, two drinks or less a day for men. That’s a max of 12.5 alcohol for women, 25 g for men. No doubt, alcohol can be extremely dangerous, even lethal. I deal with that in my patients almost every day. Some people should never drink alcohol.
The recent meta-analysis in the British Medical Journal, which the authors say is the most comprehensive ever done, reviewed all pertinent studies done between 1950 and 2009, finally including 84 of the best studies on this issue. Thirty-one of these looked at deaths from all causes.
Compared with non-drinkers, drinkers had a 25% lower risk of developing coronary heart disease (CHD) and death from CHD. CHD is the leading cause of death in develop societies.
Stroke is also considered a cardiovascular disease. Overall, alcohol is not linked to stroke incidence or death from stroke. The researchers did see strong trends toward fewer ischemic strokes and more hemorrhagic strokes (bleeding in the brain) in the drinkers. So the net effect was zero.
Compared with non-drinkers, the lowest risk of death from any cause was seen in those consuming 2.5 to 14.9 g per day (one drink or less per day), whose risk was 17% lower. On the other hand, heavy drinkers (>60 g/day) had 30% higher risk of death.
In case you’re wondering, the authors didn’t try to compare the effects of beer versus wine versus distilled spirits.
On a related note, scientists at the Medical University of South Carolina found that middle-aged people who took up the alcohol habit had a lower risk of stroke and heart attack. Wine seemed to be more effective than other alcohol types. They found no differences in overall death rates between new drinkers persistent non-drinkers, perhaps because the study lasted only four years and they were following only 442 new drinkers.
This doesn’t prove that judicious alcohol consumption prevents heart attacks, cardiac deaths, and overall deaths. But it’s kinda lookin’ that way.
Reference: Ronksley PE, Brien SE, Turner BJ, Mukamal KJ, & Ghali WA (2011). Association of alcohol consumption with selected cardiovascular disease outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 342 PMID: 21343207