Not only does alcohol help to ward off a heart attack, a regular daily drink is probably a good idea, researchers have found.
They have found that frequent consumption of alcohol is linked to a lower risk of heart attack in men.
However, experts have warned that alcohol can damage health in other ways.
The researchers, from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Harvard School of Public Health Study, tracked the drinking habits of nearly 40,000 men over a 12-year period.
They found that men who drank moderate amounts of alcohol three or more times a week were up to 35% less likely to have a heart attack than non-drinkers.
Researcher Dr Kenneth Mukamal said: “Even relatively modest amounts of alcohol may be protective if consumed frequently.
“Our results document that a pattern of regular consumption at least three to four days per week is associated with the lowest risk of heart attacks.”
The researchers examined the effect of drinking red and white wine, beer and spirits.
They found all appeared to cut the risk of heart attack.
Dr Mukamal said alcohol helped to raise levels of good cholesterol (HDL cholesterol) in the body.
However, it might also improve the way the body breaks down sugars in the blood, and reduce the risk of blood clots, which can lead to a heart attack.
He said: “It seems that alcohol’s influence on platelets and clotting is relatively short-term.
“This could explain why frequent alcohol intake is of greatest benefit in helping to guard against coronary heart disease.”
The study also found that men who increased their alcohol consumption by one drink a day over the 12 years of the study had a 22% lower risk of heart attack than men whose consumption patterns remained unchanged.
However, Dr Mukamal warned that the findings did not necessarily mean that doctors should recommend drinking to their male patients.
He said: “It’s always tricky to offer individual advice based on observational studies of large numbers of people.
“You need to take into account other considerations - for example, a person’s family history, the risk of driving in an impaired state, the risk of developing liver problems - before deciding on the safest level of alcohol consumption for that individual.”
Alison Shaw, a cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said previous research had suggested moderate consumption of alcohol (1-2 units a day) protected middle aged men and post-menopausal women from heart disease.
But she said it would be wrong to draw firm conclusions from one study.
“In the short term, the good news is that we can all enjoy the odd drink.
“However, as the researchers recognise, too much drink can have an adverse effect on health, and alcohol may affect people in different ways depending on their lifestyle and family history.
“In the long term, alcohol should not be used to protect the heart.
“The best way to reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease is still to stop smoking, increase levels of physical activity and cut down saturated fats.”
The research is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Revision date: July 4, 2011
Last revised: by Janet A. Staessen, MD, PhD