If you enjoy an evening cocktail or a glass of wine with dinner you’ve probably been toasting the research findings that light to moderate alcohol consumption contributes to a longer life and a decreased risk of coronary heart disease and heart failure. Research has shown that light to moderate alcohol intake appears to reduce levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6), inflammation markers that have been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. As a result, scientists believe that alcohol protects against cardiovascular disease by reducing inflammation.

In an article published in the July 24, 2006 Archives of Internal Medicine , researchers set out to determine whether alcohol’s anti-inflammatory properties really affect mortality and heart disease. They found that light to moderate alcohol consumption does significantly reduce the risks of death, heart attack, angina , and heart failure. But the reduction is not caused by alcohol’s influence over inflammation.

About the Study

The researchers recruited 2487 men and women, ages 70-79, who did not have coronary heart disease or heart failure. At the start of the study, the researchers measured the subjects’ IL-6 and CRP levels. The participants reported their smoking status, physical activity level, body mass index, whether they had diabetes or hypertension , and other factors that could influence their cardiovascular risk.

They then completed questionnaires specifying how many alcoholic drinks they consumed in a typical week. Their alcohol intake was categorized as former; never or occasional (< 1 drink per week); light to moderate (1–7 drinks per week); and heavier (>7 drinks per week). The researchers followed the study participants for an average of 5.6 years, noting the number of deaths and cardiac events (heart attack, angina, or heart failure) that occurred during that time.

Even after controlling for cardiovascular risk factors and levels of the inflammatory markers IL-6 and CRP, light to moderate alcohol drinkers had a 26% lower risk of death and a 28% lower risk of cardiac events compared to never or occasional drinkers. These were both significant differences.

Keep in mind, though, that self-reported levels of alcohol intake may be unreliable, and this study relied on study participants to accurately report how much alcohol they drank.

How Does This Affect You?

This study found that among older adults, light to moderate alcohol drinkers had significantly lower risks of death and cardiac events compared to those who never drank or drank occasionally. And, alcohol’s effect on mortality and cardiac risk appears to be independent of its effect on inflammation, though this study is certainly not the last word on the subject. Exactly how alcohol produces these benefits, therefore, remains a mystery, notwithstanding numerous other theories.

While light to moderate drinking can have beneficial health effects, heavy drinking can be disastrous, often leading to premature death through numerous illnesses or injury. If you don’t drink at all, there is no reason to start. The potential health benefits of alcohol consumption do not outweigh even a small risk of developing an alcohol addiction. However, if you drink responsibly and enjoy a glass of wine or beer everyday, feel free to toast to your health.