A Few Drinks A Day Can Add
Years To Life, Studies Show

by John Carpi
Copyright 1998 Investor's Business Daily, Inc.
Reprinted with permission of
Investor's Business Daily (January 19, 1998)

An apple a day may hold its place in rhyme, but research shows it's a drink a day that can keep diseases at bay.

From preventing ulcers and heart disease to protecting your eyes and mind from the ravages of age, a spate of new research indicates that a drink (or two) a day may lower your risk of a variety of illnesses and extend your life.

Although the news about a glass of wine a day watering down the risk of heart disease surfaced a few years ago, at least 10 studies released within the past few months have revealed that the benefits of moderate drinking reach beyond the heart. And they can be achieved with virtually any alcoholic beverage that suits your palate.

"The amount and range of new research on drinking is just phenomenal," said Dr. Michael J. Thun of the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. "Moderate drinking appears to impart so many benefits that death from almost any cause is delayed," he said.

But before you run out to the nearest liquor store, doctors have some words of caution about the line between healthful drinking and problem drinking. And they point out that even in the face of the new research, certain risks are linked to even the occasional tipple.

Thun said that women in particular should watch what they drink. Most studies have found that even moderate drinking can increase the risk of breast cancer in women by 50%. Overall, this increased risk is modified by a dramatic reduction in heart disease, but "it is something to bear in mind, especially for women at high risk of breast cancer."

Alcohol consumption is also the primary cause of liver disease in both women and men.

The key to obtaining the benefits of drinking while avoiding the risks is moderation, defined as one to two glasses of wine or beer, or one to two mixed drinks, a day.

"If the U.S. population as a whole drank moderately as research suggests, we would see more of the benefits and less of the harm associated with alcohol," said Dr. John D. Potter of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Perhaps the most dramatic evidence supporting a regular bend of the elbow comes from a study of nearly 500,000 people sponsored by the federal government and released last month. In that trial, researchers found that people who had a drink or two each day were 20% less likely to die during the 10-year study.

Here is an overview of other benefits from moderate drinking that have come to light recently:

* Have a drink, kill a bug. A German study of nearly 900 people found that those who regularly had one or two drinks a day were 75% less likely to suffer from stomach ulcers. Regular drinking appeared to kill the stomach bacteria known as H. pylori, the major cause of ulcers.

* Toast your good memory. While heavy alcohol consumption is known to impair thinking, new findings suggest that, in women at least, low to moderate drinking may aid the brain's performance.

A study of people between the ages of 59 and 71 found that women who had up to four drinks a day performed better on tests of memory and mental tasks than did teetotalers. Those who had five or more drinks a day had the poorest performance on the mental tests.

The only conclusive result for men in the study was that those who took five or more drinks a day did the worst on the mental tests.

* Drink for your heart's content. Studies keep pouring in that suggest from one to three drinks a day can ward off heart disease.

In healthy men and women, a regular snort reduces the risk of the chest pain known as angina, heart attack and strokes by up to 30%, according to Dr. Charles Hennekens of Harvard Medical School in Boston.

"And we now believe that moderate drinking can also prevent a second heart attack in people who already have heart disease," Hennekens said.

Regular alcohol consumption raises levels of "good" HDL cholesterol, makes the blood cells called platelets less sticky and thus less likely to clump together into a clot, and, in women, simulates the hormone estrogen, which has been shown to protect the heart.

* See your way clear for a daily beverage. Between one and four drinks a day can cut your risk of developing a degenerative eye disease that is the most common cause of blindness in people over age 65.

The disease, called macular degeneration, was reduced by 20% among regular drinkers compared with those who abstained, said Dr. Thomas Obisesan of Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C. Although the tipplers in the study were wine drinkers, Obisesan said, "It is reasonable to assume that any alcoholic beverage would result in the same benefit."

If the news has persuaded you to venture out to your local bar, the experts have some words of warning.

"It is important to realize that every study that found a benefit from drinking has also found that drinking too much can leave you in worse shape than if you rarely or never drank," Hennekens said.

For instance, in addition to increasing the risk of breast cancer in women, five or more drinks a day has been related to cirrhosis of the liver, heart disease and cancer. Further, any amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy can damage the fetus.

And there is the potential for alcohol addiction or abuse. "There is a definite line between healthy drinking and problem drinking," said Dr. Fred Ward, an addiction researcher at New York University Medical Center.

"People who regularly have five or more drinks a day are twice as likely to develop alcohol dependence as are less-frequent drinkers," he said. Signs to watch for: an urge to drink, behavioral changes while drinking and drinking excessively when alone.

While some studies have found as many as four drinks a day can be good, "All the studies have found that the benefits begin with one drink a day," Hennekens said. "If you stick to one to two drinks, you'll get all the benefits from drinking and be less likely to develop any alcohol-related problems."

The experts added that drinking is no panacea. "Regular moderate drinking is OK, but it can't make up for a diet of fast food and a life of tobacco use and no exercise," Hennekens said.

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