Time for your Cocktail, Edith!

December 21st, 2010 | Sources: Wall Street Journal

Studies about the health effects of alcohol always make headlines.

And it’s remarkable how complicated those health effects have turned out to be. In a 2-week period last September for example, the press covered 2 negative studies and 1 positive study about the health impact of alcohol: on down side were studies showing that consuming one lousy alcoholic beverage per day increased the risk of cancer in women, and that that people who consumed 2 or more alcoholic drinks per day had a 22% higher risk of pancreatic cancer. On the up side was a study showing that moderate drinking was associated with a reduced the risk of dementia.

Well guess what, Edith? Scientists have presented, and the press has duly covered, 2 more studies on the health effects of alcohol. And both of them were positive!

Edith? Edith? Are you listening?

In the first, Qi Sun of Brigham and Women’s Hospital looked at 14,000 women from the Nurse’s Health Study, 1,440 of which had survived to age 70 without cardiac disease or cancer, and without memory problems or physical impairments. He compared alcohol consumption during midlife in this healthy cohort with that in women who had one or more chronic diseases, or mental or physical limitations. He found that the women who downed one or two drinks on most days of the week were 28% more likely to be members of the healthy cohort than women who drank no alcohol at all.

The second study focused on the risk of stroke. It also relied on data from the Nurse’s Health Study. In this instance, scientists looked at 73,000 women with no history of heart disease or cancer at the time they enrolled in the study. Going forward from their enrollment date, women who consumed an alcoholic beverage per day had a 20% lower risk of stroke than their tea-totaling counterparts. Alcohol intake higher than one drink per cay conferred no additional benefits. Interestingly, women who took hormone-replacement therapy and who consumed at least 2 drinks per day had a slightly increased risk of stroke.

The Nurses’ Health Study has enrolled over 200,000 women since its inception 35 years ago. It provides a good data set for studies like this because staff personnel obtain detailed histories about alcohol intake at regular intervals. This reduces errors caused by faulty memory.

Both the above studies were presented at the annual meetings of the American Heart Association last month. The AHA and other groups recommend that women should consume no more than one drink per day (for men, it’s two), and that no one should start drinking alcohol in order to gain these health benefits, since by all accounts they are small.


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