Can an alcoholic drink a day keep the heart doc away?

The vigorous debate over the health benefits of consuming alcohol is ongoing, but a new study suggests one drink a day could protect a person from heart failure later in life.

The study, published in the , followed 14,629 adult men and women for nearly 25 years. The findings – drinking up to seven alcoholic beverages per week could reduce the risk for heart failure by 20 percent for men, and 16 percent for women.

“This a great study because of the large sample size and long follow up,” says Dr. Abbas Rampurwala, cardiologist with the Advocate Heart Institute at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, Ill. “It shows that moderate alcohol intake doesn’t contribute to an increased risk of heart failure and may actually be a benefit in preventing it.”

Participants, all between the ages of 45 and 64 years old, were divided into six categories:

  • Those who drank up to seven alcoholic beverages a week
  • Those who had between seven and 14 a week
  • Those who had between 14 and 21 a week
  • Those who had more than 21 a week
  • Former drinkers
  • Those who don’t drink

One drink was defined as 14 grams of alcohol, the equivalent to a half pint of beer, a small glass or wine or one shot of hard liquor.

Study participants were interviewed and evaluated every three years from the late 1980s through 2011. By the end of the study, approximately 1,271 men and 1,237 women developed heart failure.

The lowest rate of heart failure was among those who had seven drinks per week and the highest rate was among those who were former drinkers. Participants who drank 14 or more drinks per week had similar risks to that of the abstainers.

“The study does not prove cause and effect, but merely an association of moderate alcohol intake with lower heart failure incidence,” Dr. Rampurwala says. “The benefits of moderate alcohol intake should be weighed carefully.”

For heavy drinkers – 21 or more drinks a week – the risk of mortality from any cause increased in 47 percent of men and 89 percent of women.

“Previous studies have shown moderate alcohol usage is associated with reduced risk for heart attack, stroke and death,” Dr. Rampurwala says. “The more important message from this study is that anything more than moderate alcohol intake is associated with greater incidence of heart failure.”