Alcohol: A double-edged sword for heart and health, from the Harvard Heart Letter

A huge study showing that moderate, prudent drinking protects the heart and arteries raises a big question: What should we do with this information? In what sounds like a contradictory conclusion, the researchers say their findings "lend further support for limits on alcohol consumption." That makes sense, reports the October 2011 Harvard Heart Letter, when you consider the complexity of alcohol's effects on heart disease, stroke, and other aspects of health.

In the study, which included more than two million men and women followed for an average of 11 years, moderate alcohol use (compared to no alcohol use)

  • reduced the risk of a new diagnosis of coronary artery disease by 29%
  • reduced the risk of dying from any cardiovascular disease by 25%
  • reduced the risk of dying from a heart attack or coronary artery disease by 25%
  • reduced the risk of dying from any cause by 13%
  • reduced the risk of having an ischemic (clot-caused) stroke by 8%
  • increased the risk of dying from a stroke by 6%
    • increased the risk of having a hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke by 14%.

      The amount of alcohol consumed influenced the effect. For coronary artery disease and death from it, any amount of alcohol — from just under one-half drink per day on up — reduced heart disease risk by about 25%. But this was offset by stroke risk: at four drinks per day, the risk of having a stroke was 62% higher than it was with no alcohol use, and the risk of dying from a stroke was 44% higher. The lowest risk for any cause of death was at one drink per day.

      To continue reading this article, you must login.
      • Research health conditions
      • Check your symptoms
      • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
      • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
      • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
      Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »