The more women drink -- and the more often men drink -- the healthier their hearts.
The new findings, based on the self-reported drinking habits of some 57,000 middle-aged Danes, confirm a previous report that the lower risk of heart disease in men who drink alcohol depends more on how often they drink than on how much they drink.
And for the first time, the study finds that alcohol's heart benefit for women doesn't depend on how often they drink -- just on how much. Study co-leader Janne Tolstrup, PhD, is a human biologist in the Center for Alcohol Research at Denmark's National Institute for Public Health, Copenhagen.
"For men who drink alcohol, the most healthy way they can do that is to drink frequently, but only in small amounts," Tolstrup tells WebMD. "To get the beneficial effect, you don't have to drink very much."
It's a different story for women.
"What we see with women is a beneficial effect on heart disease, but this seems associated more with amount than with frequency," Tolstrup says. "This is a different message than for men, because the women drinking the most have the lowest risk of heart disease. It seems to be independent of how often they drink."
Tolstrup and colleagues report the findings in the May 27 issue of the British Medical Journal.
Uncorking Bottles and Heart Risk
The findings don't mean that immoderate drinking -- let alone binge drinking or alcoholism -- is good for your overall health. Doctors won't start telling teetotalers to be tosspots.
"What also should be remembered is, here we study heart disease and see a beneficial effect for alcohol drinking," Tolstrup says. "But alcohol has a lot of disadvantageous effects on other diseases, such as breast cancer. There are other health outcomes where drinkers' risk will be increased."
Moreover, the heart benefits of drinking apply only to middle-aged or older people.
"If we had studied young people, we would not see this beneficial effect of drinking -- just the detrimental effect," Tolstrup says. "This is because people in their 20s and 30s are not at risk of heart disease yet. So this drinking benefit is confined to postmenopausal women and men over age 50."
That having been said, the heart benefit is real. Over nearly six years, men who drank every day cut their risk of heart disease by 41 percent. Women who drank at least once a week cut their risk of heart disease by 36 percent or more.
Women who drank the most -- 14 or more drinks per week -- generally had the lowest risk of heart disease: as much as a 73 percent decrease in risk. For this study, a drink was defined as 12 grams of alcohol. A 12-ounce bottle of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled liquor has between 11 and 14 grams of alcohol.
Men who drank 21 drinks or more a week, and drank every day, had the lowest risk of heart disease.
A Grain of Salt on Rim of Drinking Benefit
Annie Britton, PhD, worries that people will use the Tolstrup team's findings to justify their dangerous drinking habits. An editorial by Britton, a public health researcher at University College, London, accompanies the Tolstrup study.
"We really need to interpret this with a great deal of caution," Britton tells WebMD. "It's a good study. But people will hear you have to drink every day, and young people will see this as an excuse to increase both the frequency and volume of their drinking."
Britton points out that too many of us drink too much -- a problem that is getting worse, not better. Many diseases, as well as driving deaths, are directly linked to alcohol consumption.
"We need to consider the societal implications of drinking before we encourage people to pour the next glass," she says.
And Britton worries that people who drink every day may become alcohol-dependent without realizing it.
"I think you can drink every day and be moderate. A glass or two of your favorite drink doesn't sound like risky behavior," she says. "But having a few days free from alcohol seems healthy, just to make sure you are not addicted -- even in a mild way. To make sure you're not using alcohol as a crutch would certainly be a sensible thing to do."
By Daniel J. DeNoon, reviewed By Ann Edmundson, MD
SOURCES: Tolstrup, J. British Medical Journal, May 27, 2006; vol 332: pp 1244-1247. Britton, A. British Medical Journal, May 27, 2006; vol 332: pp 1224-1225. Mukamal, K.J. The New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 9, 2003; vol 348: pp 109-118. Janne Tolstrup, PhD, human biologist, Center for Alcohol Research, Denmark's National Institute for Public Health, Copenhagen. Annie Britton, PhD, senior lecturer in epidemiology and public health, University College, London.