Drinking alcohol lowers the risk of some kinds of heart disease in people. It can also decrease the risk of stroke in middle-aged and older men.
The Physicians’ Health Study, an investigation that was originally designed to examine the effects of aspirin and beta-carotene on men’s health, provided the subjects for the current report. More than 22,000 men between the ages of 39 and 83 were enrolled in the study in 1982. They initially provided information about their lifestyles, including diet, activity level and frequency of consuming alcoholic beverages.
Participants’ health status was monitored for an average of 12.2 years after initiation of the study. In particular, the study assessed the occurrence of ischemic stroke, the type caused by a blockage of blood flow in part of the brain, and of hemorrhagic stroke, which results from uncontrolled bleeding in part of the brain. The researchers found that the risk of total strokes of both types was about 20 percent lower in men who had one or more alcoholic drinks per week than in men who drank less than once per week. Most of the decrease in risk was due to a decrease in ischemic stroke, which is the most common type of stoke in the United States.
The decreased risk of stroke persisted, but did not decrease further, for men who consumed up to one or more drinks per day. In their discussion, the authors noted that very few (only 3.1 percent) of the subjects reported drinking more than one drink per day, which indicates that heavy drinking was rare in this group of physicians. Thus, they indicated it was not possible to draw conclusions about those who said they had two or more drinks per day.
Interestingly, the researchers found that the advantages of alcohol drinking on stroke was seen over a broad range of intake — that as little as one drink per week could provide a benefit.
The authors noted that they “could not assess the possibility of a differential effect of specific types of alcohol on the risk of stroke, since the questionnaire did not ask about the type of beverage.” They also did not ask study participants about their patterns of alcoholic beverage consumption.
Although the study obviously supports the theory that light to moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages can provide health benefits, the authors also warned against unfounded generalization of these results (which were derived from middle-aged or older, mostly white, male physicians) to other segments of the population.
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