Family lore has it that during Prohibition, my maternal grandfather got his physician to write him an "as-needed for the heart" prescription for corn whiskey, a script Grandpa apparently either regularly filled himself or from a neighbor's still in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia until he could resume legal liquor purchases at stores.
He died of heart disease anyway, but not for another three decades.
Researchers have devoted many volumes over the past 30 years to examining what positive or negative effects drinking might have on the heart. The general wisdom has settled that having a drink or two every so often, even one a day, may be mildly beneficial to the circulation, but not so helpful that it's advisable to take up drinking for medical reasons if you don't already drink.
But a recent study published by researchers at Boston University Medical Center suggests that alcohol use, even at levels deemed "hazardous," still reduces the risk for coronary heart disease. Hazardous was based on international definitions of more than 14 drinks a week for men, seven a week for women. A drink was defined using 1 1/2 ounces of whiskey or other hard liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer, wine cooler and similar beverages.
The study, appearing in the American Journal of Addiction, was based on data from 43,000 adults who took part in a national survey on alcohol use and related conditions. It included self-reported heart disease in 2001.
Compared with abstinent individuals, the rate of heart disease among moderate and hazardous drinkers was about the same, and the odds held true even when controlling for various socio-economic, psychiatric and addictive risk factors, but could not take into account differences in exercise or diet.
The researchers note that if the risk of coronary disease does not increase despite heavier drinking, it may be that higher heart risks reported in some studies are actually the result of other kinds of heart problems, such as heart rhythm or structural defects, rather than clogged arteries.
However, researchers also point out that the rate of accidents, suicide and other diseases associated with heavy alcohol use may well overcome any protective effect on the heart.
Alcohol may help the arteries long-term, but a report published last summer by Harvard scientists found that the risk of stroke appears to double in the hour after consuming just one drink of any type of alcohol.
Based on interviews with 390 victims of stroke caused by a blood clot in a vessel in or leading to the brain, the researchers discovered that compared with times when alcohol wasn't being used, the risk of stroke was 2.3 times higher in the first hour and 1.6 times higher in the second hour, with the risk then falling off.
Just after drinking, blood pressure rises and platelets in the blood become stickier, which may increase the risk of a clot forming. However, consistent use of small amounts of alcohol is known to thin fats in the blood and make blood vessels more flexible.
"At this point, we don't have enough evidence to say that people who don't drink should start, or that people who drink in small amounts, on the order of one drink a day, should stop," said Dr. Murray Mittleman, senior author of the study and director of the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Research Unit at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard School of Medicine.
The study appeared last July in Stroke, Journal of the American Medical Association.
Other studies have shown that heavy alcohol use can also raise the risk of cancer, and by keeping the liver tied up, can take the body longer to break down fats and make the body store more fat, boosting obesity.
(Contact Lee Bowman at firstname.lastname@example.org.)