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Research Suggests Benefits and Risks of Drinking Alcohol

Are there nutrients in alcohol? No, but including alcoholic beverages in your diet has benefits as well as risks. The benefits of alcohol on your health seem to be linked to moderate drinking — no more than one drink a day for a woman, two drinks a day for a man — consumed with food. The risks generally associate with alcohol abuse — drinking too much too often.

Moderate amounts of alcohol reduce stress, so it isn’t surprising that recent well-designed scientific studies on large groups of men and women suggest that moderate drinking is heart-healthy, protecting the cardiovascular system (that’s science talk for heart and blood vessels).

Here are some findings about the cardiovascular benefits and some of the other things moderate drinking can do for you:

  • The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study 1 followed more than one million Americans in 25 states for 12 years to find that moderate alcohol intake had an “apparent protective effect on coronary heart disease.” Translation: Men who drink moderately lower their risk of heart attack. The risk is 21 percent lower for men who have one drink a day than for men who never drink.

    A similar analysis of data for nearly 600,000 women in the long-running (Harvard) Nurses’ Health Study showed that women who drink occasionally or have one drink a day are less likely to die of heart attack than those who don’t drink at all.

  • A 2003 study at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine shows that men who drink moderately (two drinks a day) also are less likely to die of clot-related stroke. But because alcohol reduces blood clotting, it increases the risk of hemorrhagic stroke (stroke caused by bleeding in the brain).

  • According to researchers at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) laboratory at Beltsville, Maryland, moderate drinking may lower a healthy older woman’s risk of developing diabetes.

  • Contrary to popular opinion, a 15-year, 1,700-person heart disease study at the Institute of Preventive Medicine, Kommunehospitalet in Copenhagen, Denmark, showed that older men and women who regularly consumed up to 21 drinks of wine a week were less likely than teetotalers to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

    Similarly, a 12-year, 1,488-person survey at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland suggests that regular, moderate drinkers score better over time than teetotalers do on the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE), a standard test for memory, reasoning, and decision making.

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: The same studies that applaud the effects of moderate drinking on heart health are less reassuring about the relationship between alcohol and cancer: The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study 1 shows that people who take more than two drinks a day have a higher incidence of cancer of the mouth and throat (esophagus).

In addition:

  • Researchers at the University of Oklahoma say that men who drink five or more beers a day double their risk of rectal cancer.

  • American Cancer Society statistics show a higher risk of breast cancer among women who have more than three drinks a week, but newer studies suggest this effect may apply only to older women using hormone replacement therapy.

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