health benefits of drinking
- Sorry if this is long, but most here will find it interesting.
In todays (Dec.28) Wall St. Journal-
Drink Your Medicine? Weighing
The Health Benefits, Risks of Alcohol
December 28, 2004; Page D1
There is a drug that can lower your risk of heart attack, diabetes,
osteoporosis and mental decline by 30% to 60%, but doctors aren't
The reason? It is alcohol.
Increasingly, scientific research supports the idea that drinking a
small amount of alcohol each day is better for you than never
drinking at all. This isn't true for people with some conditions, but
overall, data collected from large observational studies show that
drinking moderate amounts of alcohol can lower the risk of dying by
about 25% in any given year for the average person, compared with
those who rarely drink.
The evidence that alcohol is good for you continues to spark debate
in the medical community about whether doctors have an obligation to
inform patients about the health benefits of drinking. Because
excessive alcohol consumption can be harmful -- causing addiction,
traffic accidents and potentially fatal medical problems -- most
doctors say it is never a good idea to tell a nondrinking patient to
start consuming alcohol. Although most people can drink responsibly,
it is impossible to know which patient may eventually start to abuse
alcohol as a result of moderate daily consumption.
In addition, even small amounts of alcohol can increase risk for
certain health worries, such as breast and colon cancer. And much of
the research on alcohol's benefit comes from studies that observe
people over time, rather than controlled clinical trials, which are
So while the evidence is strong, it isn't conclusive. As a result,
the American Heart Association doesn't recommend drinking alcohol to
gain cardiovascular benefit, noting that there are less risky ways to
protect your heart.
But the issue poses a significant dilemma for doctors. If a physician
is aware of a drug that could have life-saving benefits, he or she
has an ethical and legal obligation to inform the patient -- even if
the drug carries risks. Shouldn't the same rules apply to alcohol?
"There's no doubt in my mind that if we had a public policy
encouraging people to drink a little bit of alcohol, the net outcome
would be very negative," says Pittsburgh cardiologist Richard N.
Fogoros. "But doctors don't treat society -- they treat individuals,
and for any given individual, this information may be materially
Another reason doctors should be talking more about alcohol is that
patients are confused. Countless news reports have touted the health
benefits of alcohol, while others have linked it with a higher risk
for certain cancers and other problems. Few people understand how
much alcohol is good for you and at what point it can start to cause
In a scientific advisory statement issued in 2001, the American Heart
Association noted that there were at least 60 studies linking alcohol
consumption with lower heart-attack risk. Research also shows that
regular and moderate alcohol consumption lowers risk for diabetes,
osteoporosis, dementia and stroke.
For instance, in the Nurses Health Study, which follows more than
80,000 women, those with diabetes who drank at least a half-serving
of alcohol a day had a 52% lower risk for heart attack than
nondrinkers. (A serving is a glass of wine or beer or a shot -- 1 to
1.25 ounces -- of whiskey). A 2,000-patient study showed that people
who were moderate drinkers in the year before heart attacks had a 32%
lower risk of dying during the four years after the heart attack. A
17-year study in England of more than 5,000 men found that moderate
drinkers were 34% less likely to develop diabetes.
But even in small amounts, alcohol can increase some health risks. A
person who has two drinks a day has a 75% higher risk for oral
cancers and a 51% higher risk of esophageal cancer than the average
person who rarely drinks. Two drinks a day increases the risk for
colon cancer by 8%. For women, even small amounts of alcohol increase
breast cancer risk by 30%.
As a result, people need to take into account family history and
personal concerns. A woman with a strong family history of breast
cancer or someone with a family history of alcoholism might decide to
forgo alcohol altogether. But someone without those added risk
factors who is worried about heart attack might consider drinking
small amounts of alcohol daily.
This summer, the Southern Medical Journal published a review of the
major studies looking at alcohol and health, including data collected
in the nurses study and on 88,000 doctors in the Physican's Health
Survey. The bottom line: the maximum health benefits come with one
half to one serving of alcohol a day. At that amount, heart
protection is high but risk for other alcohol-related health problems
is at its lowest.
People who drink somewhat more -- for women, two to three drinks a
day, for men, three or four -- aren't changing their odds. Their
overall risks are the same as people who don't drink at all. But once
women go above three drinks and men go above four drinks, they put
themselves at far higher risk for other alcohol-related problems.
John B. Standridge, associate professor at the University of
Tennessee and a specialist in both addiction and family medicine who
authored the SMJ review, doesn't think doctors should advise patients
to start drinking because it is impossible to know who might become
addicted. At the same time, he notes that a patient who is well-known
by a doctor, has no abuse history and needs aggressive intervention
for heart risk, might consider moderate alcohol.
"Nowhere in medicine is the double-edged sword so sharp on both
sides," Dr. Standridge notes.
Here's a look at the benefits of moderate drinking.
HEALTH RISK EFFECT OF ALCOHOL
Heart attack 37% lower risk in men who drink five to seven days a
Diabetes 34% lower risk of developing disease; up to 60% more
protection for diabetics at high risk of heart attack
Stroke 40% to 60% lower risk with one to two drinks a day
Dementia 42% lower risk with consumption of one to three drinks daily
Osteoporosis Women who have six or seven drinks a week have
significantly higher bone density than nondrinkers
Source: Southern Medical Journal, July 2004