Raise a Glass for Your Health?

What do you think of this new study that shows that drinking any kind of alcohol lowers the risk of heart attack? What’s your advice about drinking given the results?

– January 17, 2003

(Updated 1/25/2005)

You’re no doubt referring to the published results of an ongoing study at the Harvard School of Public Health that is tracking the health of more than 38,000 male health professionals. Results showed that men who drank a moderate amount of alcohol at least three to four days a week had a lower risk of heart attack than those who didn’t drink at all. By a “moderate amount” the study’s authors meant a glass or two of wine, beer, or some other type of alcoholic beverage.

These results are certainly interesting since they suggest that it isn’t the type of alcohol – red wine, for instance – that is protective, but alcohol in general. However, I know of no medical authority who suggests, on the basis of these results, that men who do not drink alcohol should now take up the habit as a way to reduce their risk of heart attack. This question has come up in the past when earlier studies suggested that alcohol, and red wine in particular, is protective. Then, as now, my position has been that if you do drink alcohol, moderate amounts may be protective. However, if you don’t drink, you have better alternatives – good diet and adequate exercise, for example. And drinking alcohol on top of poor dietary and exercise habits is not going to neutralize the effects of those behaviors.

By the way, although the Harvard findings got a lot of publicity, another study showed that consuming an equivalent amount of alcohol can be very unhealthy. Results reported in the January 2003 issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research showed that the protective effects of alcohol do not show up among African-American men who drink the same amount as the men in the Harvard study but do so during weekly binges. Clearly, we still have a lot to learn about alcohol and its influence on health.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

More information on alcoholism.

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