Does a Drink a Day Help You Prevent Heart Failure?

Study suggests it’s true, but many questions unanswered

Couple toasting wine glasses

It’s not the first time we have heard that drinking a little alcohol may have health benefits. But a recent study published in the European Heart Journal has reignited the discussion.

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Seven drinks per week

Over two decades, researchers studied the heart health of more than 14,000 adults, ages 45 to 64. Study participants were categorized by their alcohol consumption:

  1. Abstainer
  2. Up to seven drinks per week
  3. 7 to 14 drinks per week
  4. 14 to 21 drinks per week
  5. More than 21 drinks per week
  6. Former drinker

(One drink was equal to a 12-ounce can of beer, 5 ounces of wine or a 1.5-ounce shot of hard liquor.)

Participants that had the lowest rate of heart failure during the study were those that reported consuming up to seven alcoholic drinks per week. Researchers found that men’s risk was 20 percent lower and women’s was 16 percent lower than those who abstained from alcohol.

Unanswered questions

So, can we conclude that a drink a day is good for you?

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Maybe, maybe not, says David Taylor, MD, a cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic. While the results are encouraging, the study raises more questions. For example:

  • Does the amount of alcohol consumption cause the outcome or is it just a marker of a patient’s likelihood for heart failure?
  • Is there a difference between binge drinking and consuming gradual low doses of alcohol? In other words, could drinking a six-pack on Saturday protect you all week?
  • What about adults in their 20s and 30s? Would up to seven drinks a week produce the same outcome for them? And what happens later in life? If you abstained from alcohol in your younger years, should you start drinking at 65?
  • Why didn’t women get quite the same benefit as men?

“This study was merely observational,” says Dr. Taylor. “Patients who abstained from drinking alcohol weren’t randomly assigned to be abstainers and those who did drink weren’t assigned how many drinks to have. The only way to find some of the unknowns is to randomly assign participants to categories and then control everything else.”

One thing we do know: Heavy alcohol consumption is linked to higher risk of cardiac events, including heart attack and cardiomyopathy.

Moderation is still key

The study’s findings were in line, reporting that the heaviest drinkers (who consumed more than 21 drinks per week) had the highest risk of mortality — from any cause.

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As for the rest of the findings, take them with a grain of salt, advises Dr. Taylor.

“The study suggests that if you’re healthy, between 45 and 64, and regularly have a drink at dinner or otherwise drink moderately, you won’t have a higher risk for heart failure — and you may even be a little better off,” says Dr. Taylor.