- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

It's how often you drink, not what you drink, that helps the heart.Scientists know drinking can prevent heart attacks, but new research shows that how often a person imbibes matters more than what or how much.
As little as half a drink every other day is enough to reduce the risk, regardless of whether it is beer, red wine, white wine or liquor, the study indicates. Whether you drink it with your meal or at some other time also appears irrelevant.
"It was a surprise that, almost regardless of other factors associated with drinking, frequency of use seemed to be what reduced the subsequent risk of a heart attack," said Dr. Kenneth Mukamal of Harvard University Medical School, who led the study.
Those who drank at least three days a week had about one-third fewer heart attacks than did nondrinkers. And it made almost no difference whether the drinking consisted of a half-drink or four. Those who imbibed only once or twice a week had only a 16 percent lower risk of a heart attack.
Some studies have indicated that alcohol raises the level of "good" cholesterol and also thins the blood, warding off the clots that cause heart attacks. But alcohol breaks down fairly rapidly in the body and its effects on red blood cells are short-lived, according to Dr. Mukamal.
Dr. Mukamal speculated that regular, moderate drinking is beneficial because it helps keep the blood thinned.
"We think it may be much like people who take aspirin every day or every other day. A little bit of alcohol on a regular basis helps keep the platelets from becoming sticky and prevents heart attacks," he said.
He said other studies have found that people with a gene that keeps alcohol longer in their system seem to benefit the most from moderate drinking.
"That helps reinforce the notion that maintaining a low level of exposure is the way to go," he said.
The study appears in today's "New England Journal of Medicine."
Dr. Mukamal and other doctors emphasized that the study applies only to moderate drinking. The dangers of heavy drinking are well-established and include alcoholism, drunken driving, and damage to the liver and brain. Studies have also found that women who have two or more drinks a day are 41 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than women who do not drink.
Dr. Lynn Smaha, a cardiologist in Sayre, Pa., and a past president of the American Heart Association, said he will continue to be very cautious in what he tells his patients about drinking.

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