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Study finds it's OK to drink alcohol after heart attack

Until now, medical science has been unclear whether people who have had heart attacks should drink alcohol.  

But a new study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health adds some powerful new information to the equation.

Researcher Jennifer Pai studied the  health history of nearly 2,000 men who were moderate drinkers.  Among those who had heart attacks, if they continued to drink in moderation after the attack, their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease declined 45 percent compared to those who stopped drinking.  

So, what is moderation?  Pai defined the upper limit as 2-12oz beers per day, 2-4oz glasses of wine or 2-1 ½ oz shots of liquor.  Pai said her research could change the way doctors look at moderate drinking after heart attack.

“Previously it was unclear whether men should continue to drink moderate amounts of alcohol after they experience a heart attack," Pai said.  “Our study shows that moderate alcohol consumption should not be discouraged if they were already consuming alcohol.  And in fact, may improve longevity.”

While doctors still don’t know exactly how it works, alcohol raises levels of HDL or good cholesterol in the blood, increases insulin sensitivity, decreases levels of fibrinogen (a blood clotting factor) and lowers inflammation.  It can also decrease feelings of stress.  All things that are good for your heart.  

But is the medical community ready to recommend people start drinking?  Hardly.  While alcohol may have protective effects on the cardiovascular system, there are also plenty of downsides.

Dr. Marc Siegel of NYU Langone Medical Center, and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team, said alcohol is a toxin. 

“It's toxic to the liver, and it's toxic to the heart," Siegel said.  "So if you drink too much alcohol, you are pickling your heart, and it damages heart tissue.  So you can never tell a patient with heart disease that they should drink alcohol.  It is not sound medical advice.”

That said, Siegel also calls the results of this study “astounding.” 

Siegel said if a heart attack patient came to him and said he or she had a glass of wine last night, he’d probably advise them that was OK.

Pai also said there is a fine line between helping your heart and hurting it.  Her study showed a ‘U’-shaped relationship between alcohol and risk of death from cardiovascular disease.  At 2 drinks per day, patients were at the bottom of the U – the lowest risk.  But more than that, the risk rises rapidly and the protective effects are actually reversed.

The study only looked at men, but Pai said the results could easily be applied to women – with the caveat that because of their lighter weight, the upper limit for women would probably be 1 drink/day.

John Roberts joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in January 2011 as a senior national correspondent and is based in the Atlanta bureau.