Could a habit of consistent "moderate" drinking – a little more than two drinks a day for men, and slightly less for women – actually help your heart?
That's the suggestion from a new study of more than 35 000 British and French adults whose health and drinking habits were tracked for a decade. The investigators found that consistent, moderate tippling was tied to better heart health than abstaining from alcohol altogether.
Overall healthy lifestyle patterns
Still, researchers from University College London (UCL) cautioned that many other lifestyle factors might explain the findings, and they found only an association – not a definite cause-and-effect relationship.
One US expert who wasn't involved in the study echoed that sentiment.
"There is a suggestion that small, consistent intake of alcohol may have a protective effect on the development of coronary heart disease. But whether the beneficial effects are attributed to the alcohol or overall healthy lifestyle patterns – such as communal eating, physical activity or social support – remains unclear," said Dr Eugenia Gianos. She directs women's heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
As reported recently in BMC Medicine, a team led by UCL's Dr Dara O'Neill analysed data from six studies involving more than 35 000 adults in the United Kingdom and France, over a 10-year period.
During that time, nearly 5% developed heart disease, and 0.9% of those people died from heart problems, the findings showed.
Consistency a key factor
When it came to drinking habits, consistency appeared to be the key to heart risk, the researchers said.
Those who consistently drank moderate amounts of alcohol had a lower risk of heart disease than those whose drinking levels ebbed and flowed over time. Consistent moderate drinkers also had a lower risk compared to people who'd drunk in the past but had since given it up, and those who never drank, O'Neill's group found.
Age and gender appeared to be factors, too.
"When we split the sample by age, we found that the elevated risk of [heart disease] among 'inconsistently' moderate drinkers was observed in participants aged over 55, but not those aged below," O'Neill said in a journal news release.
"It may be that the older group experienced lifestyle changes, such as retirement, which are known to co-occur with increases in alcohol intake and that these could have played a role in the differing risk," O'Neill added.
Also, among the long-time non-drinkers, abstention appeared to raise heart risks for women, but not for men, the study found.
And in one unexpected finding, consistent heavy drinkers were found to have the lowest incidence of a cardiovascular event – crises such as a heart attack or stroke.
However, the researchers cautioned that this could be a statistical fluke.
Image credit: iStock