Harvard Men's Health Watch

On call: Alcohol, hypertension, and heart attacks

Q. I am a 57-year-old man with a dilemma. I understand from your articles that moderate drinking may help me avoid a heart attack like the one that killed my brother. But I've just been diagnosed with hypertension, and I was told that alcohol can raise my blood pressure and stress my heart. So I need to know if drinking is likely to help my heart or harm my health.

A. Your question itself holds the solution to your quandary; it's the word moderate. In moderate amounts, alcohol does appear to reduce the risk of heart attacks, particularly in men who are middle-aged and older. And while heavy drinking will raise blood pressure and cause many other health problems, moderate drinking does not lead to hypertension. In both cases, a moderate "dose" amounts to one to two drinks a day, counting 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1 ounces of liquor as one drink.

A Harvard study makes the point. The subjects were 5,164 male physicians who had hypertension but no other cardiovascular diseases when the study began in 1982. The scientists tracked the men over the next 26 years. During that time, moderate drinking was associated with a reduced risk of heart attacks, even in these hypertensive men. As compared with their non-drinking peers, men who averaged five to seven drinks a week experienced a 22% lower risk of heart attacks, while men who averaged over eight drinks a week enjoyed a 43% lower risk. Because so few of the men averaged two or more drinks a day, the researchers were unable to evaluate the impact of heavier drinking.

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