We have known for years that low or moderate alcohol consumption tends to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease such as heart attack and stroke, and prolongs life span. Physicians have been hesitant to suggest that nondrinkers take up the habit. We don’t want to be responsible for, or even accused of, turning someone into an alcoholic. We don’t want to be held accountable for someone else’s drunken acts. Every well-trained physician is quite aware of the ravages of alcohol use and abuse. We see them up close and personal in our patients.
A scientific study published in 2008, however, lends support to a middle-aged individual’s decision to start consuming moderate amounts of alcohol on a regular basis. It even provides a positive defense if a doctor recommends it to carefully selected patients.
This research, by the way, was supported by a grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, not the wine/alcohol industry.
Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina examined data on 15,637 participants in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study over a 10-year period. These men and women were 45 to 64 years old at the time of enrollment, living in four communities across the U.S. Of the participants, 27% were black, 73% nonblack, 28% were smokers, and 80% of them had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes.
Out of 15,637 participants at the time of enrollment, 7,359 indicated that they didn’t drink alcohol. At baseline, these 7,359 had no cardiovascular disease except for some with high blood pressure. Subsequent interviews with them found that six percent of the nondrinkers – 442 people – decided independently to become moderate alcohol drinkers. Or at least they identified themselves as such.
“Moderate” intake was defined as 1-14 drinks per week for men, and 1-7 drinks a week for women. Incidentally, 0.4% of the initial non-drinking cohort – 21 people – became self-identified heavy drinkers.
93.6% of the 7,359 non-drinkers said that they continued to be non-drinkers. These 6,917 people are the “persistent nondrinkers.”
Type of alcohol consumed was also surveyed and broken down into 1) wine-only drinkers, or 2) mixed drinkers: beer, liquor, wine.
Researchers then monitored health outcomes for an average of 4 years, comparing the “new moderate drinkers” with the “persistent nondrinkers.”
- Over 4 years, 6.9% of the new moderate drinkers suffered a cardiovascular event, defined as a heart attack, stroke, a coronary heart disease procedure (e.g, angioplasty), or death from cardiovascular disease.
- Over 4 years, 10% of the persistent nondrinkers suffered a cardiovascular event.
- The new moderate drinkers were 38% less likely than persistent nondrinkers to suffer a new cardiovascular event (P = 0.008, which is a very strong association). The difference persisted even after adjustment for demographic and cardiovascular risk factors.
- There was no difference in all-cause mortality (death rate) between the new moderate drinkers and the persistent nondrinkers.
- New drinkers had modest but statistically significant improvements in HDL and LDL cholesterol and mean blood pressure compared with persistent nondrinkers.
- 133 new moderate drinkers consumed only wine
- 234 new moderate drinkers consumed mixed types of alcohol
- Wine-only drinkers were 68% less likely than nondrinkers to suffer a cardiovascular event.
- “Consumers of moderate amounts of beer/liquor/mixed (which includes some wine) tended to also be less likely to have had a subsequent cardiovascular event than nondrinkers…but the difference was not significant.”
A Few Study Limitations
- Four years is a relatively brief follow-up, especially for cancer outcomes. Alcohol consumption is associated with certain types of cancer.
- If moderate alcohol consumption indeed lowers death rates as suggested by several other studies, this study may not have lasted long enough to see it.
- The alcohol data depended on self-reports.
The study authors cite four other studies that support a slight advantage to wine over other alcohol types. It’s a mystery to me why they fail to stress the apparent superiority of wine in the current study. Several other studies that found improved longevity or cardiovascular outcomes in low-to-moderate drinkers suggest that the type of alcohol does not matter. Perhaps “the jury is still out.” In the study at hand, however, it is clear that the reduced cardiovascular disease rate in new moderate drinkers is associated with wine.
In all fairness, other studies show no beneficial health or longevity benefit to alcohol consumption. But at this point, the majority of published studies support a beneficial effect.
Wine is a component of the traditional healthy Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet is associated with prolonged life span and reduced cardiovascular disease. This study strongly suggests that wine is one of the health-promoting components of the Mediterranean diet.
Starting a judicious wine habit in middle age is relatively safe for selected people and may, in fact, improve cardiovascular health, if not longevity.
Now the question is, red or white. Or grape juice?