People tend to have strong feelings and beliefs about alcohol—and for good reason. Muslims, Mormons and certain Christian churches forbid it. Buddhists disapprove of it. Other religions incorporate alcohol into rituals and take a more permissive line. Survey results vary, but about 35 percent of American adults drink no alcohol, 55 percent are light or moderate drinkers and 10 percent drink more than moderately. Alcohol is estimated to cause 90,000 deaths a year in the U.S., directly or indirectly, including more than 11,000 traffic fatalities. Treating alcoholism costs billions annually.
At the same time, drinking has some benefits. For many people, it is part of social, business and family life, an enjoyable and traditional accompaniment to food and celebrations. Medical science has a lot to say about alcohol. While doctors have long recognized the harm of too much alcohol, it has been used medicinally for centuries. It was once the only antiseptic and anesthetic in the surgeon’s kit.
Healthy maybe, confusing certainly
Researchers have found that drinking alcohol regularly, even in small amounts, reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease—the most common cause of death in the industrialized world. If Americans suddenly stopped drinking, thousands more deaths from heart disease would occur each year. Moderate alcohol intake also helps reduce the risk of some other disorders, including type 2 diabetes, gallstones and peripheral artery disease—perhaps even dementia.
Whether to drink is a personal decision. At the very least, alcoholic beverages cost money and add calories to the diet. More seriously, alcohol can cause accidents, family conflicts and medical problems. Keep in mind, too, that there’s little or no cardiovascular benefit for premenopausal women or for men under 40, since they are at much lower risk. If you already drink or think you might start, here are answers to some questions.
How does alcohol protect the heart?
The action is two-fold. Like aspirin, alcohol reduces blood clotting—a transient effect that persists for about a day. When consumed regularly, alcohol also raises levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol over the long term; HDL removes cholesterol from arterial walls and helps prevent atherosclerosis (“hardening of the arteries”).
For heart health, is it best to drink every day?
It’s not clear what routine is best, except that small amounts of alcohol consumed regularly are better than larger amounts occasionally. Some research suggests that daily (or almost daily) drinking is best for the heart, others that drinking every other day is enough to get the benefits. Some studies have found that all it takes is half a standard drink a day. Drinking with meals is preferable, since that slows the absorption of the alcohol. In addition, people who drink at meals are more likely to drink moderately.