Spanish scientists have hit the headlines by releasing research that suggests that heavy drinkers reduce their risk of heart attack by 50%. The data, which did not differentiate alcohol intake from wine, beer or spirits, suggests that moderate drinking has a preventative effect, but heavy drinking was better.
The study followed 15,500 men and 26,000 women over the course of 10 years, and measured their self-reported alcohol intake and the incidence of any heart disease. In a surprising set of results, the researchers found that, compared to teetotallers:
- ‘light drinkers’ (men who consumed alcohol at a unit or less per day) were 35% less likely to suffer from heart disease
- ‘moderate drinkers’ (one to four units per day) reduced risk by 51%
- ‘heavy drinkers’ (four to eleven units per day) reduced risk by 54%
- shockingly, ‘very heavy drinkers’ (more than eleven units per day) still reduced risk by a massive 50%
This set of results is especially surprising when it is considered that eleven units is around six pints of beer. Although Spain’s intake of alcohol is considered above average for European nations, it is the sheer volume of alcohol reported that had some observers questioning both the methodology and the agenda of the research team.
This research is seen as highly controversial, not least because of the apparent disparity between men and women that took part in the study. Whilst men were shown to benefit from a halving of risk when they drunk more than 11 units each day, women did not show any benefit. Beyond these inconsistencies, the conclusion that this liver load could benefit the heart is seen as dubious at best, with the methodology called into question by many experts.
My experience is that clients will have a task remembering what food/drink they consumed last week, let alone the amounts. Self-reporting over 10 years, which is what how the data was collected in this study, represents nothing more than guess work. Just like many other studies, this guesswork has been dressed up as a scientific study.
In any case, alcohol use increases the risk of heart disease in prior studies, and Department for Health figures show that men who consume eight units per day nearly double their chances of a heart attack. There is also a wealth of evidence demonstrating that alcohol intake increases blood pressure, causes enlargement of the heart and cardiomyopathy, increases risk of the various cancers and even thrombosis. Alcohol consumption is also the easiest way to increase bodyfat. It is true, however, that red wine contains two compounds known for their health benefits, resveratrol and oligo-proanthocyanins (OPCs). However, if these are what you after, resveratrol is obtainable in red grapes and OPCs are abundant in grapeskin, aubergines, green peppers and green tea.
Those looking for the go-ahead to get merry would do well to remember that there is science, and then there is useful information. Like many others, this study is just science.
The Academy of Medical Sciences (2004). Calling time: The nation’s drink as a major health issue.
Arriola L, Martinez-Camblor P, Larrañaga N et al (2009). Alcohol intake and the risk of coronary heart disease in the Spanish EPIC cohort study. Heart, Published online 19 Nov 10.
Mckee, M & Britton, A (1998). The positive relationship between alcohol and heart disease in eastern Europe: Potential physiological mechanisms. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 91(8), pp. 402-407.
Mercola J (2009). Can Alcohol Really protect Your Heart? Available online at http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/12/10/Can-Alcohol-Really-Protect-Your-Heart.aspx, Accessed 10 Dec 10.
Urbano-Marquez, A, Estruch, R, Navarro-Lopez, F, Grau, J & Rubin, E 1989, ‘The effects of alcoholism on the skeletal and cardiac muscle’, New England Journal of Medicine 320, pp. 409-415.