Charles A. Bertrand, M.D., FACP, DIM-CD (Ret.)
Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at New York Medical College
and at the Medical University of South Carolina


If you like a cocktail before dinner every night, you can now offer medical evidence to support your habit. As a matter of fact, if you never touch the stuff, or have less than one drink a week, you could be at some risk.

A new Harvard study appearing in Annals of Internal Medicine - by Carlos A. Camargo, Jr., MD, et al, "Moderate Alcohol Consumption and Risk for Angina Pectoris or Myocardial Infarction in U.S. Male Physicians," Vol. 126, No. 5, (March 1, 1997) pp. 372-375 - surveyed the drinking habits of 22,071 apparently healthy male physicians to determine if alcohol consumption had any effect in decreasing the occurrence of myocardial infarction (heart attack) or angina (chest pains due to a hardening of the arteries of the heart). The researchers monitored the health of these physicians for well over ten years through surveys, and they also followed up with spot checks to make certain the self-reporting was accurate - in 99 percent of the cases of nonfavorable outcomes and 100 percent of the reported deaths. These follow ups were conducted by telephone and by examination of hospital records.

The authors published the following results:

But before you conclude that you can't get too much of a good thing, consider this sobering fact: those who consumed more than two drinks a day showed a statistically significant increase in the incidence of cancer. One drink a day keeps the cardiologist away. Several drinks a day and the oncologist may be your constant companion. heavy drinking also increases your risk of cirrhosis of the liver.)

Incidentally, the study did not distinguish among the types of alcohol consumed. For example, the researchers made no attempt to see whether whisky or wine was healthier than beer. However, a previous French study suggests that red wine has greater benefits than other beverages. On the other hand, beer drinkers tend to consume more than two cans or bottles a day, which leads to multiple problems, such as weakening of the heart muscle and malfunction of the liver, the brain, and other vital organs.

So how could moderate drinking improve the function of your heart? Medical evidence indicates that alcohol affects cholesterol metabolism, particularly the HDL component (high density lipoprotein) in a favorable manner. Alcohol improves the HDL level - the so-called "good cholesterol."

(A second recent study in the February issue of Circulation involving the same 22,071physicians reported a one-third lower risk of arterial disease in the legs of men who drank moderately. Again, researchers concluded that HDL was the good guy in this encouraging news.) So what does this mean to you? It means that if you want to have one drink every day, you will probably benefit from the alcohol. It means as well that if you can't stop at one (or at the very most two), you will incur greater risks in other areas. Also, if you are under dietary restriction then you may prefer to abstain.

In addition, the study should be reassuring to men and women other than physicians. Judging from these studies, the chances are your doctor doesn't drink too much. As this study demonstrates, few are drunks, probably because they understand the risks better than most other people. After this study, however, the percentage of doctors who never touch the stuff may decrease - because doctors themselves are as anxious as anyone else to keep the doctor away. This article is for general information purposes only. It is suggested that interested patients discuss their drinking habits with their own primary care physician who can help them assess the health risks and benefits of any possible behavioral change.

The advice provided on this website is intended to be general in nature and should not be relied upon for specific treatment. If you need personal medical attention please contact your physician.

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