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Experts review and weigh in on cardiovascular benefits of alcohol

By Kathleen Blanchard

Researchers have conducted a systematic review of available evidence that does show moderate alcohol intake may lower the chances of developing heart disease. The findings show cardiovascular disease risk is lower among individuals who consume alcohol in moderation, compared to non-drinkers, but panel experts for the review also say it’s difficult to make recommendations for drinking for heart disease prevention. 

The finding, published in the British Medical Journal, determined that one drink of alcohol daily was associated with reduced overall risk of deaths from cardiovascular disease, reduced chances of coronary heart disease and death from existing coronary heart disease, and stroke and dying from stroke.

Alcohol in moderation has cholesterol benefits

From the study review, the authors concluded alcohol in moderation may raise levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol levels and boosts levels of adiponectin, a hormone that regulates lipid or cholesterol levels that the authors note are an indirect benefit of drinking.

Fibrinogen lower with alcohol consumption

Fibrinogen, a protein that plays a role in blood clotting, was also lower for moderate drinkers compared to non-drinkers. The protein is also known to be a predictor of stroke from elevated levels in the bloodstream and is higher in patients with coronary artery disease.

Should we start drinking alcohol for heart health?

Though the findings were positive that moderate alcohol consumption has benefits for cardiovascular health, forum panelists for the review do not suggest wine, beer and liquor should be routinely recommended for prevention of heart disease. 

Erik Skovenborg, a panel member says, "The public health messages should (and in many countries do) acknowledge the reduced risk of incidence and mortality of coronary heart disease associated with moderate drinking. However, we should not expect official recommendations of light drinking on a par with exercise, vegetables, and not smoking. The caveats would be too many, and official recommendations should be based on prospective, randomized studies. The role of alcohol drinking is best discussed in a scenario of a patient taking medical advice from his personal physician." 

Professor Arthur Klatsky also notes there is a “struggle” among the review authors about “emotional baggage” associated with recommending drinking alcohol for cardiovascular health. Klatsky says, “…having practiced cardiology for 50 years, it is clear to me that all advice — even upon matters with good evidence — needs individualization”, combined with common sense. 

The study review and comments from the forum of experts finds alcohol can reduce the chances of cardiovascular disease that includes stroke and coronary artery disease, but discussing individual risks with your personal physician is important.  It is also important to note the study included individuals without prior history of heart disease and took into account all types of alcohol.


BMJ 2011; 342:d671 

BMJ 2011; 342:d636