Collect health data on 333,000 Americans, see how many passed away in the past eight years and determine how they died. It doesn’t sound like a cheery assignment, but the researchers behind this study have found that participants who consumed light to moderate amounts of alcohol suffered from lower rates of death from cardiovascular disease than those who drink heavily and those who never drink.
The study, published this month in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, isn't the first to make this claim, but it addresses several criticisms of past studies that found a daily glass of wine may lead to a healthier heart.
Researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch, the Capital Institute of Pediatrics in Beijing and Shandong University in Jinan, China, used National Health Interview Surveys from 1997 to 2009 to collect data on the health and self-reported drinking patterns of more than 333,000 U.S. adults. During those eight years, about 34,000 of the participants died, and the researchers collected data on the same individuals from the National Death Index to examine the association between different levels of alcohol consumption and the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, cancer and other causes.
The researchers classified people’s alcohol habits into six categories: lifetime abstainers, lifetime infrequent drinkers, former drinkers and current light drinkers (less than three drinks per week), moderate drinkers (between three drinks and 14 drinks per week for men and fewer than seven drinks per week for women) or heavy drinkers (more than 14 drinks per week for men and seven or more drinks per week for women).
In an effort to address the “sick quitter phenomenon”—a criticism of past studies that suggests some nondrinkers skew results because they had quit drinking for health reasons—researchers separated former drinkers and lifetime abstainers, and also excluded data from participants with a history of physician-diagnosed diseases, as well as from individuals who died within the first two years of the study. The study also included controls for smoking, body mass index and physical activity, but did not differentiate between beer, wine or spirits.
The results indicate that, compared with lifetime abstainers, those who were light or moderate drinkers had a reduced risk of mortality for all causes, particularly cardiovascular disease. Heavy drinkers had a significantly increased risk of both cancer-related death and death from other causes.
"The take-home message is simple," Dr. Sreenivas Veeranki, assistant professor at the University of Texas and one of the study's authors, told Wine Spectator. "If you are a drinker, drink with caution. There is a thin line between protective effects and risk."
The team also found a link between light drinking and a decreased cancer risk, but the researchers are hesitant to tout this conclusion. "This is an interesting finding because most of the National Cancer Institute guidelines say any type of alcohol intake is a risk factor for cancer," said Veeranki. “We want to do a follow-up study." Veeranki also hopes to look at how specific types of alcohol might affect health in future research.