WASHINGTON (Reuters) - People who do not drink alcohol may finally have a reason to start -- a study published on Friday shows non-drinkers who begin taking the occasional tipple live longer and are less likely to develop heart disease.
People who started drinking in middle age were 38 percent less likely to have a heart attack or other serious heart event than abstainers -- even if they were overweight, had diabetes, high blood pressure or other heart risks, Dr. Dana King of the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston and colleagues found.
Many studies have shown that light to moderate drinkers are healthier than teetotalers, but every time, the researchers have cautioned that there is no reason for the abstinent to start drinking.
Now there may be, said King.
“This study certainly shifts the balance a little bit,” King said in a telephone interview.
King’s team studied the medical records of 7,697 people between 45 and 64 who began as non-drinkers as part of a larger study. Over 10 years, 6 percent of these volunteers began drinking, King’s team reported in the American Journal of Medicine.
King said he does not know why some of the volunteers started drinking. “This was a natural experiment,” he said.
“Over the next four years we tracked the new drinkers and when we compared them to the persistent non-drinkers, there was a 38 percent drop in new cardiovascular disease.”
The findings held even when the researchers factored in heart disease risks such as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, race, education levels, exercise and cholesterol.
Several of the volunteers had more than one risk factor and still benefited from adding alcohol, King said.
Fewer than one percent of people in the study drank more than is recommended, King said. Recommended amounts equal a drink or two a day by most guidelines.
“Half of them were wine drinkers only. There was a much bigger benefit for wine-only drinkers,” he added.
Now King’s team has started a new study in which his team will randomly assign non-drinkers to start either having a glass of wine a day, a glass of grape juice, or grape juice spiked with antioxidants, compounds believed to help fight heart disease.
But the findings do not mean people should drink freely, King said. Another study published this week supports that advice. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that how much and how often people drink affects their risk of death from several causes.
Their study of 44,000 people showed that men who had five or more drinks on days they did drink were 30 percent more likely to die of a heart attack or stroke than men who had just one drink a day -- regardless of what their average drinking intake was.
Writing in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, the team at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Cancer Institute found that regular, moderate drinking was healthier than having the occasional binge.
Even men who drank every single day of the year were 20 percent less likely to die of heart disease than men who drank just one to 36 days per year -- if they drank moderately.
“Taken together, our results reinforce the importance of drinking in moderation,” the researchers wrote.
Editing by Todd Eastham