What a Daily Drink Might Do for Your Heart

Heart failure risk lower in patients who drank alcohol moderately

That nightcap or glass of wine with dinner may be doing more than just relaxing you at the end of a long day. It could be boosting your heart health.

New findings from a long-term study found that drinking up to seven drinks a week in early to middle age reduced the risk of heart failure. This study also found that non-drinkers and heavy drinkers had similar heart failure risks.

The authors of this study didn't encourage people to drink — they just found an association between alcohol intake and the risk of heart failure.

Although scientists have known for some time that alcohol may have both positive and negative effects on the heart, research on the connection between alcohol intake and heart failure has shown mixed results.

To clarify this issue, Scott D. Solomon, MD, of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, conducted this study with colleagues.

"These findings suggest that drinking alcohol in moderation does not contribute to an increased risk of heart failure and may even be protective," Dr. Solomon said in a press release. "No level of alcohol intake was associated with a higher risk of heart failure. However, heavy alcohol use is certainly a risk factor for deaths from any cause.”

Dr. Solomon and team collected data from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study (ARIC) on more than 14,000 men and women for around 25 years.

These researchers defined a drink as about 4 ounces of wine, a half pint of beer, or less than one shot of liquor like whiskey or vodka.

People who drank up to seven drinks a week had the lowest rate of heart failure — 20 percent less for men and 16 percent less for women — when compared to those who didn't drink.

But those who drank more than 21 drinks a week had a greatly increased risk of death from any cause — 47 percent for men and 89 percent for women. Women metabolize alcohol differently than men and may be more sensitive to its effects, Dr. Solomon and colleagues noted.

Heart failure occurs when the heart weakens and cannot pump blood as well as it did in the past. It is often caused by high blood pressure, a heart attack, virus infections, illegal drugs or excessive drinking. People with heart failure must often limit their daily activities because their hearts cannot handle the demands of physical activity.

Despite these findings, Dr. Solomon and team didn't give the green light to alcohol.

“It is important to bear in mind that our study shows there is an association between drinking moderate amounts of alcohol and a lower risk of heart failure but this does not necessarily mean that moderate alcohol consumption causes the lowered risk, although we did adjust our results to take account, as far as possible, for a variety of other lifestyle factors that could affect a person's risk,” Dr. Solomon said.

This study was published Jan. 20 in the European Heart Journal.

The ARIC study was funded by grants from sources like the National Heart, Lung, and Blood institute, the Ellison Foundation, and the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology. Dr. Solomon and colleagues disclosed no conflicts of interest.