Does drinking alcohol reduce your risk of heart disease?

Two people holding pints of beer
23rd March 2017 

A new study has linked drinking alcohol with a healthier heart. Don’t pick up the wine bottle yet, as we look behind the headlines.

News reports have said that drinking alcohol is good for the heart, based on a new study from University of Cambridge and University College London.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), suggested that drinking in moderation could offer a protective effect for the heart compared with not drinking.

The researchers found that moderate drinkers are less likely to turn up at their doctor suffering from 12 heart and circulatory conditions such as anginaheart attackheart failure, or ischaemic stroke (the most common type), compared to non-drinkers.

They believe that moderate amounts of alcohol may boost levels of good cholesterol in the blood.

But the research also found that drinking more than 14 units a week increased the risk of heart failure, a cardiac arrest and ischaemic stroke. Drinking one and a half bottles of 13 per cent ABV wine in a week is enough to take you over this level. The findings are in line with the current guidance for men and women not to regularly exceed more than 14 units of alcohol a week. 

The BHF view

Tracy Parker, Heart Health Dietitian at the British Heart Foundation, said: “This study suggests that sticking within alcohol guidelines may actually lower your risk of some heart conditions. But it’s important to remember that the risks of drinking alcohol far outweigh any possible benefits. And these findings are certainly no reason to start drinking alcohol if you don’t already.”

The researchers also emphasise that it “would be unwise to encourage individuals to take up drinking as a means of lowering their risk… because there are arguably safer and more effective ways of reducing cardiovascular risk.” 

Tracy added that "better ways to reduce your risk are by getting regular exercise, eating a good diet and quitting smoking. If you’re over 40 you should also consider a free NHS health check, to better understand your risk of heart disease and the steps you can take to lower it.”

It’s important to remember that the risks of drinking alcohol far outweigh any possible benefits

Tracy Parker
BHF Heart Health Dietitian

How good is the research?

The study was large, looking at 1.93 million adults in the UK and Wales. The researchers looked at health records from 1997-2010 and split these people into five categories: non-drinkers, former drinkers, occasional/rare drinkers, moderate drinkers, and heavy drinkers. 

They also re-classified non-drinkers as former drinkers if they had any medical record of drinking or a history of alcohol abuse.

One limitation of the study, which the researchers acknowledged, is that it’s based on self-reported levels of alcohol drinking –which may not always be accurate.

They adjusted the results for age, socioeconomic factors, and smoking, so the results could be more clearly associated with alcohol consumption.

A strength of the study is that previous research has mostly focused on heart attack or stroke, and this research looked at 12 cardiovascular diseases. However, there are some heart and circulatory  conditions that weren’t included in the research.

Was the media coverage accurate?

The study was widely covered in the national press, including the Daily Mail, the Independent, the Express, and The Sun.

One issue was that some of the media coverage could be seen as encouraging non-drinkers to take up alcohol. For example, the Daily Mail article doesn’t state until the ninth paragraph that ‘The scientists urged adults not to start drinking to try to protect their hearts and advised them to take up exercise instead.’ In the Independent it didn’t suggest this until the 14th paragraph, the Express mentions it in the 11th, and The Sun mentioned in the final paragraph of the article.

The Independent also ran the headline ‘Drinking pint of beer a day linked to reduced risk of heart attack’. This is based on the fact that seven pints can be the equivalent of 14 units. But this only applies to 4 per cent alcohol beer, whereas the alcohol percentage in beer can be higher. Drinking a pint a day of  5 per cent beer, such as Peroni, Stella Artois or San Miguel, is equivalent to 19.6 alcohol units a week – which is enough to put you into the “heavy drinking” category which the study found comes with health risks. Despite the headline, the study doesn’t mention beer specifically, and does not suggest that beer is favourable compared to any other alcohol. 

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