Light drinkers are less likely to suffer heart problems, study finds


A wine a day really does keep the doctor at bay: Light drinkers are less likely to suffer heart problems, study finds

  • Scientists studied brain scans of 754 people taken for cancer surveillance
  • It is the first study to indicate alcohol’s longer-term neurobiological effects 

It’s news most of us will want to raise a glass to.

Having the occasional drink lowers stress, which is linked to heart attack and stroke, research suggests.

Women who drink up to one alcoholic beverage a day and men who consume a maximum of two, had a lower risk of cardiovascular problems than those who drank more or were teetotal.

While previous research has hinted it may have a protective effect, this is the first time scientists think they have cracked the physiological cause.

They found regular low amounts of alcohol leads to long-term reductions in stress signalling in the brain, which are associated with heart attack and stroke.

Scientists found women who drink up to one alcoholic beverage a day and men who consume a maximum of two, had a lower risk of cardiovascular problems than those who drank more or were teetotal

Scientists found women who drink up to one alcoholic beverage a day and men who consume a maximum of two, had a lower risk of cardiovascular problems than those who drank more or were teetotal

Experts hope it means they will be able to develop treatments to replicate alcohol’s protective cardiac effects without its adverse impacts, such as cancer, diabetes and obesity.

Researchers studied data involving more than 50,000 Americans, before studying brain scans of 754 people, which were primarily taken for cancer surveillance.

The brain imaging showed those who drink moderately had reduced stress signalling in the amygdala, the brain region associated with stress responses.

When the investigators looked at these individuals’ history of cardiovascular events, they found fewer heart attacks and strokes in light to moderate drinkers.

While it’s long been known that alcohol reduces the amygdala’s reactivity to threatening stimuli when drinking, this is the first to indicate its longer-term neurobiological effects.

Dr Ahmed Tawakol, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and senior author, said: ‘We found that the brain changes in light to moderate drinkers explained a significant portion of the protective cardiac effects.

‘When the amygdala is too alert and vigilant, the sympathetic nervous system is heightened, which drives up blood pressure and increases heart rate, and triggers the release of inflammatory cells.

‘If the stress is chronic, the result is hypertension, increased inflammation, and a substantial risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.’

The effect was particularly pronounced in people who are prone to a chronically higher stress response, with moderate drinking associated with nearly double the cardiac-protective effect in individuals with a history of anxiety compared with others.

However, this effect was undone when people drank more with those who consume above the 14 recommended units a week having a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease while overall brain activity started to decrease.

Writing in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the authors conclude that research should focus on finding new interventions that reduce the brain’s stress activity.

Professor Naveed Sattar, Professor of Metabolic Medicine, at the University of Glasgow, said the findings should not be viewed as giving the green light to alcohol.

He said: ‘The issue is we know any amount of alcohol is associated with more strokes and heart failure, and with increases in cancer and deaths from cardiovascular causes.

‘So to concentrate only on one small aspect, even if true, gives the wrong impression and the title of better heart health with light to moderate alcohol is misleading and perpetuates old myths we really need to move on from.’

DO YOU DRINK TOO MUCH ALCOHOL? THE 10 QUESTIONS THAT REVEAL YOUR RISK

One screening tool used widely by medical professionals is the AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Tests). Developed in collaboration with the World Health Organisation, the 10-question test is considered to be the gold standard in helping to determine if someone has alcohol abuse problems.

The test has been reproduced here with permission from the WHO.

To complete it, answer each question and note down the corresponding score.

YOUR SCORE:

0-7: You are within the sensible drinking range and have a low risk of alcohol-related problems.

Over 8: Indicate harmful or hazardous drinking.

8-15: Medium level of risk. Drinking at your current level puts you at risk of developing problems with your health and life in general, such as work and relationships. Consider cutting down (see below for tips).

16-19: Higher risk of complications from alcohol. Cutting back on your own may be difficult at this level, as you may be dependent, so you may need professional help from your GP and/or a counsellor.

20 and over: Possible dependence. Your drinking is already causing you problems, and you could very well be dependent. You should definitely consider stopping gradually or at least reduce your drinking. You should seek professional help to ascertain the level of your dependence and the safest way to withdraw from alcohol.

Severe dependence may need medically assisted withdrawal, or detox, in a hospital or a specialist clinic. This is due to the likelihood of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms in the first 48 hours needing specialist treatment.



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