Q: Can drinking wine really help my heart? -- R.W., North Augusta
A: Recent studies supporting alcohol as a treatment for heart patients should not be misunderstood. Though there has been evidence that moderate drinkers experience a lower risk of coronary heart disease, this evidence should not be used to rationalize heavy drinking. Alcohol produces a number of negative effects, including high blood pressure, stroke, stomach cancer, throat cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, accidents and domestic violence.
Moderation is the key. The studies show a lower incidence of heart disease among moderate drinkers -- those who drink one drink a day. Unfortunately, many people are unable to limit themselves and abuse alcohol. It is estimated that more than 2.5 million older Americans abuse alcohol. And this abuse usually goes unnoticed, undiagnosed and untreated.
According to Harvard medical researchers, moderate drinkers experience lower mortality rates than either heavy drinkers or nondrinkers. This could be the result of alcohol's ability to raise high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, or HDL, which is associated with a reduced risk of heart attack.
However, according to researchers for Johns Hopkins Medical Center, heavy drinkers experience much more negative consequences than positive. And it is impossible to determine exactly how much alcohol can help or harm each individual.
Researchers at the University of California report that alcohol is responsible for nearly 100,000 deaths each year but that it is also responsible for preventing 80,000 deaths from coronary artery disease each year in the United States.
While wine has earned higher marks than other forms of alcohol in this debate, no one type of alcoholic beverage has been proven to stand out against the others in the fight against heart disease.
Of course, alcohol should not be substituted for other measures that can lower one's risk for heart disease. Eating a low-fat diet, exercising regularly and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol low can all help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Those who are pregnant, who have a family history of alcoholism or liver disease or suffer from high blood pressure should avoid drinking.
If you have a question or would like more information, write to Shirley McIntosh, Resource Center on Aging, 2803 Wrightsboro Road, Suite 51, Augusta, GA 30909.