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Evidence that moderate drinking benefits the heart is ‘evaporating’

“In health as elsewhere, if something looks too good to be true it should be treated with great caution,” writes health policy professor Mike Daube.

The American Heart Association now stresses that we should not drink alcohol in the hopes of warding off heart disease.
REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

For years, we were told that consuming light to moderate amounts of alcohol — particularly wine — offers us some health benefits, particularly a lower risk of heart disease.

Recently, health officials have been more cautious. The American Heart Association, for example, now stresses that we should not drink alcohol in the hopes of warding off heart disease.

That new caution is looking more and more justified. In 2014, for example, a massive meta-analysis of 56 studies involving more than 250,000 individuals reported that reducing alcohol consumption, including among light to moderate drinkers, is beneficial to cardiovascular health.

‘Evaporating’ benefits

A new study published Tuesday in the journal BMJ offers further evidence that any apparent health benefits from alcohol are, in the words of one health policy expert, quickly “evaporating.”

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For the study, researchers analyzed a decade’s worth of British data involving more than 50,000 adults aged 50 and older who were followed for up to 10 years. They found no significant association between the moderate use of alcohol and a reduction in the risk of death.

The only possible exception was among women aged 65 and older. But those benefits were very modest, say the researchers, and may have been the result of selection bias. It’s quite possible, for example, that the older women whose data were used in this study were unusually healthy.

The study found a slight benefit among men aged 50 to 64, but it disappeared completely when the researchers did not include as “non-drinkers” people who used to drink but had stopped. 

Putting former drinkers into the same category as people who have always been teetotalers is a significant flaw of studies that have concluded that people who drink moderately are healthier than those who abstain, the authors of this current study point out. That’s because former drinkers are often former alcoholics or people who quit drinking for medical reasons. As a result, they tend to be less healthy than people who never drank.

Thus, it isn’t surprising that people who drink moderately would be healthier than them. 

An industry unchecked by government

In an editorial accompanying the study, Mike Daube, a professor of health policy at Curtin University in Australia, says there are several important take-home messages from this study — and other emerging evidence — regarding alcohol and heart disease:  

Firstly, in health as elsewhere, if something looks too good to be true it should be treated with great caution. Secondly, health professionals should discourage suggestions that even low level alcohol use protects against cardiovascular disease and brings mortality benefits. Thirdly, health advice should come from health authorities, not from the alcohol industry, and, finally, the alcohol industry and its organisations should remove misleading references to health benefits from their information materials.

Daube also has some harsh words for how the alcohol industry — with the help of governments — has exaggerated and promoted alcohol’s benefits over the years:

Governments around the world are unwilling to take on the formidable economic power of the international alcohol industry. They balk at every obstacle on the course — from taxation to legislated curbs on advertising and sponsorship, evidence based warning messages, and strong, well funded education programmes. Instead they prefer to listen to the siren songs of cooperation. Small wonder that the World Health Organization’s director general has expressed concern about ‘efforts by industry to shape the public health policies and strategies that affect their products,’ noting that ‘When industry is involved in policy-making, rest assured that the most effective control measures will be downplayed or left out entirely.’

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You can read the study and the editorial on the BMJ website.