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Health Blog — Take This

Happy Hour for Your Heart?

New studies link drinking to heart health — but there may be more to it

En español | Should your doctor write you a prescription for a martini a day to guarantee better heart health?

At first glance, that would seem to be the conclusion you could draw from three new studies presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions conference this week in Chicago.

 Simon Watson/Getty Images

"It's hard to keep from raising a toast to the idea that a cocktail before dinner, or a glass of wine while you cook, could be helping you stay healthy."

One study looked at the effect of light to moderate drinking on men who had had coronary bypass surgery. Another examined whether regular, moderate drinking had contributed to the health of women age 70 and older. And the third study examined whether women who had one drink a day had a lower risk of stroke compared to those who drank two drinks or didn't drink at all.

In each case, the conclusion, with a couple caveats, was that a regular habit of light to moderate drinking was associated with a lower risk of heart problems, as well as better health in older women.

Are you uncorking the chardonnay yet? Yeah, well, not so fast.

At least one expert cautions that it over-simplifies things to conclude that it's solely alcohol that is making people healthier.

"What we know from all the alcohol studies is that moderate alcohol use may be part of a generally healthier lifestyle and it's that lifestyle that gives you the better outcome, not just the alcohol," explains Donald Lloyd-Jones, M.D., chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

The fact that a person limits himself to a glass or two of wine or a beer at the end of the day could simply be an indication of other reasonable, healthy behavior, Lloyd-Jones says.

And although many of us would love for our doctor to recommend that we indulge our passion for pinot noir, "We don't have any direct data that alcohol use should be prescribed for patients," he adds.

Still, it's hard to keep from raising a toast to the idea that a cocktail before dinner, or a glass of wine while you cook, could be helping you stay healthy. After all, we've been hearing this message pretty much for the past decade, as research looking at the alcohol-health link has found that alcohol — in moderate amounts, of course — has beneficial effects.

And apparently Americans have taken this advice to heart (pun intended). The most recent wine industry estimates has the United States overtaking Italy — Italy! — as the world's biggest wine consumer by 2012. That's right, we are drinking more wine than the French and the Italians. For our health, of course.

Among the studies on alcohol's benefits presented at the recent heart association sessions:

Fewer heart attacks in male bypass patients: Italian researchers found that light to moderate drinking — about two drinks daily — was associated with a 25 percent lower risk of heart attacks, strokes and death in men who had had coronary bypass surgery when compared with non-drinkers.

However, bypass patients who were moderate to heavy drinkers (six drinks daily or more) and had a more serious condition called left ventricular dysfunction were twice as likely to die from heart disease as nondrinkers.

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