Middle-aged non-drinkers can quickly reduce their risk of heart disease by introducing a daily tipple to their diet, South Carolina researchers say.
New moderate drinkers were 38% less likely to develop heart disease than those who stayed tee-total, a four-year study involving 7,500 people found.
Those who drank only wine showed the most benefit, the researchers reported in the American Medical Journal.
But cardiac experts warned alcohol was not a panacea for good heart health.
The results came from a study of 7,500 people taking part in a trial to look at risk factors for atherosclerosis – hardening of the arteries.
None of them drank alcohol at the start of the study but 6% began to drink moderate amounts – one drink per day or fewer for women and two drinks per day or fewer for men – during the course of the research.
The reduced cardiovascular risk remained when the researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina took into account physical activity, body mass index, demographic and cardiac risk factors.
There was no difference in deaths over the four-year follow up.
Those who stuck to wine had the biggest reduction in cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks, compared with non-drinkers, heavy drinkers or those who drank other types of alcohol.
The study also found some improvement in HDL or “good” cholesterol in those who took up drinking.
Despite several studies showing an association with alcohol intake and reduced cardiovascular risk, guidance from the American Heart Association warns people not to start drinking if they do not already drink alcohol.
Study leader Dana King said he was surprised that the effect was so large and so quick.
“For carefully selected individuals, a ‘heart healthy diet’ may include limited alcohol consumption even among individuals who have not included alcohol previously,” he said.
However, Dr King said the benefits had to be weighed with caution against known adverse effects of drinking alcohol and it would not be advised in some people such as those with liver problems or cancer.
“I know there’s concerns about binge drinking but that is not the type of drinking pattern we’re seeing here.
“When we say seven drinks a week, we mean one a day not seven drinks on a Saturday night.”
Judy O’Sullivan, cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said the study added to the evidence that alcohol in moderation provides some protection for the heart.
But she added: “Alcohol is not a medicine and it should not be used as a panacea.
“There is a fine line between moderation and excess and alcohol can pose as many threats as it does benefits.
“Non-drinkers should not take up alcohol to protect their heart based on this study alone.”
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Sources: BBC NEWS:8Th. March.’08