Moderate drinking may lower your risk of heart disease in later life, study finds

WASHINGTON — People over age 65 who drink moderately — less than two drinks a day for men and one a day for women — appear to have a lower risk of heart disease than those who do not, a U.S. study suggests.

The study found that drink-causing mechanisms in the blood may be responsible for the reductions in heart disease risk — specifically, those affecting the endothelium (the cell layer lining the heart muscle) and cholesterol metabolism, as well as being more likely to occur after age 65.

“Previous studies have found that the higher the risk of heart disease among people who are older, the more heavily alcohol is metabolized and the more likely alcohol is to increase risk,” said the lead author, Kim Kawakami, of the UCLA Cardiovascular Center. “We found that with a moderate alcohol intake, the heart disease risk appears to be lower among those over age 65, and that beneficial effects are found only among those who were old.”

The new research, reported in the Journal of the American Heart Association, builds on previous studies finding a link between moderate alcohol consumption and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, particularly heart attack, stroke and heart failure.

This latest study was led by Kawakami and colleagues from the Cardiovascular Prevention and Research Unit at the UCLA Cardiovascular Center.

The study included 1,737 people participating in the UCLA Women’s Aging Study. The participants were aged 65 or older, of which 118 were women.

For each regular beverage in moderation they drank per day, each person was considered as having moderate alcohol consumption, based on a 0.5-percent alcohol content. While only a drink was allowed per day, wine with dinner was considered moderate compared with other types of alcohol like beer or spirits.

All of the participants were tested for 1,165 types of cardiovascular disease. Of the people participating in the study, 35 died, and 921 (91 percent) were included in the analysis.

The results showed that the level of specific disease risk in participants was very small compared with the most recent and prior studies.

With moderate alcohol consumption, the risk for heart attacks, stroke, heart failure and all other types of cardiovascular disease was decreased by about one-quarter for those in the highest range of alcohol consumption.

The risk for heart attack was 45 percent lower among those in the highest moderate wine-consumption range.

The study findings have several implications, the researchers said. The first is that higher risk is associated with greater alcohol intake — people with an average beverage per day were 50 percent more likely to have risk-increasing alcohol consumption compared with those in the lowest drinking group.

The study found that men with moderate drinking also had higher levels of HDL cholesterol (the healthy variety) and reduced levels of LDL cholesterol (the unhealthy kind), compared with men who drank no alcohol. The study found this was not true among women.

A second finding is that under- or moderate drinking was associated with better cardiovascular outcomes. Among those in the lowest moderate wine-consumption range, there was no difference in heart attack, stroke, heart failure or all other cardiovascular disease. Among those in the highest moderate wine-consumption range, those in the highest moderate alcohol-consumption category also had no differences in all the risk factors.

“We hypothesize that moderate alcohol consumption in older people may protect the hearts by promoting a healthier blood flow,” Kawakami said. “This could be a reason for the large reduction in cardiovascular disease risk in these individuals.”

The National Institutes of Health funded the study.

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