Drink Often, Not Plenty

For several decades, the medical profession has flirted with the idea that drinking can be good for heart health—and drinkers everywhere have watched closely. "The French drink tons of wine, and they never have heart attacks," is a refrain often accompanied by a bottle of red. But proof has been elusive—until now.

Researchers studied 38,077 male health professionals and found that men who drank alcohol three to seven days per week had a lower risk of heart attacks than those who drank less than once per week (New England Journal of Medicine, 2003, vol. 348, no. 2). The study represents a new landmark in heart-attack research, establishing how often you drink as perhaps more important than how much or what.

What's a drink?
Are you a moderate drinker? A heavyweight? To help you decide, take a look at what one drink amounts to:

One 12-ounce beer

4 ounces of wine

1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits

1 ounce of 100-proof spirits

—B.E.

Source: American Heart Association. Should you tip back, if you're not already? "I don't think people should change their drinking habits on the basis of a single study," says Kenneth J. Mukamal, MD, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and lead author of the study. "Although our work on this topic adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that moderate drinking can be a reasonable addition to a healthy diet, adults should consult their physicians before making any substantial changes."

Mukamal also says the findings shouldn't be taken as license to imbibe heavily. "Our results suggest that even a very small amount consumed frequently could be protective." He recommends "that men drink no more than two drinks per day"; the American Heart Association recommends a limit of one drink per day for women.

No one knows why alcohol reduces heart-attack risk, but in another recent study, researchers discovered that levels of inflammation—a newly discovered predictor of cardiovascular disease—were lower in those who drank moderately than in light drinkers or nondrinkers. The researchers concluded that alcohol may prove to have an anti-inflammatory effect, thereby reducing cardiovascular mortality (Circulation, 2003, vol. 107, no. 3).

—Bryce Edmonds