What You Need to Know: Reducing the amount of alcoholic beverages consumed, even for light-to-moderate drinkers, may improve cardiovascular health, including a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, lower body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure, according to a new multi-center study published in the British Medical Journal and co-led by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The latest findings call into question previous studies which suggest that consuming light-to-moderate amounts of alcohol (0.6-0.8 fluid ounces/day) may have a protective effect on cardiovascular health.
The Evidence: The new research reviewed evidence from more than 50 studies that linked drinking habits and cardiovascular health for over 260,000 people. Researchers found that individuals who carry a specific gene which typically leads to lower alcohol consumption over time have, on average, superior cardiovascular health records. Specifically, the results show that individuals who consume 17 percent less alcohol per week have on average a 10 percent reduced risk of coronary heart disease, lower blood pressure and a lower Body Mass Index.
“Contrary to what earlier reports have shown, it now appears that any exposure to alcohol has a negative impact upon heart health,” says co-lead author Michael Holmes, MD, PhD, research assistant professor in the department of Transplant Surgery at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “For some time, observational studies have suggested that only heavy drinking was detrimental to cardiovascular health, and that light consumption may actually be beneficial. This has led some people to drink moderately based on the belief that it would lower their risk of heart disease. However, what we’re seeing with this new study, which uses an investigative approach similar to a randomized clinical trial, is that reduced consumption of alcohol, even for light-to-moderate drinkers, may lead to improved cardiovascular health.”
In the new study, researchers examined the cardiovascular health of individuals who carry a genetic variant of the ‘alcohol dehydrogenase 1B’ gene, which is known to breakdown alcohol at a quicker pace. This rapid breakdown causes unpleasant symptoms including nausea and facial flushing, and has been found to lead to lower levels of alcohol consumption over time. By using this genetic marker as an indicator of lower alcohol consumption, the research team was able to identify links between these individuals and improved cardiovascular health.
My Take: Not so fast. I think that we need to interpret the study narrowly: For those who carry a genetic variant of the alcohol dehydrogenase 1B gene, decreasing alcohol consumption may have a cardiovascular benefit. Since we do not routinely test for this gene, I suggest moderation for those who drink: Aim for no more than one (women) or two (men) standard drinks daily (women). I look forward to the day when we can individualize recommendations regarding diet, physical activity, and cancer screening, based on individual genetics. I’m Dr. Michael Hunter.
The small print: The material presented herein is informational only, and is not designed to provide specific guidance for an individual. Please check with a valued health care provider with any questions or concerns. As for me, I am a Harvard- , Yale- and UPenn-educated radiation oncologist, and I practice in the Seattle, WA (USA) area. I feel genuinely privileged to be able to share with you. If you enjoyed today’s offering, please consider clicking the follow button at the bottom of this page.
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Reference: University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “Drinking alcohol provides no heart health benefit, new study shows.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 July 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140710151947.htm>.