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How much is too much? New study examines benefits of moderate drinking.

Doctors have some sobering news for those who think a little alcohol is good for their health: Anything more than a drink a day may be too much of a good thing.

Men who had two to four drinks a week had the lowest rate of death from all causes during an 11-year study, the researchers said Wednesday.

Many studies over the past 20 years have shown that people who drink moderately reduce their risk of dying from heart disease by about 40 percent. The evidence has become so convincing that some heart specialists have cautiously recommended moderate drinking for good health.

But some fear that alcohol's benefits for the heart could be offset by its other hazards, such as cancer and accidents.

To sort this out, researchers from Harvard Medical School examined the effects of drinking on all causes of death, not just heart disease, in 22,071 male doctors. Over an 11-year period, they compared the risk of death in the drinkers with that of people who seldom or never drank.

They found that men who had two to four drinks a week had the lowest death rate-- about 22 percent lower than those who shunned alcohol. Men who had up to six drinks a week also ran a lower risk than the nondrinkers.

But by the time the men averaged one drink a day, the benefits of alcohol were wiped out. Their risk of dying was identical to that of those who did not drink at all.

Beyond a drink a day, the risk went up sharply. Those who averaged two or more drinks a day had a death rate that was 63 percent higher than that of the nondrinkers.

The researchers found that the lower risk of dying from heart disease was offset by an increase in cancer in those who had more than a drink a day. Most of the increase was in throat, gastric, urinary tract and brain cancer.

Moderate drinking is often defined as one to three drinks a day. But the new study suggests that healthy moderation is probably considerably lower.

"Alcohol has complex health effects, with health benefits and hazards even for moderate drinkers," said Harvard's Dr. Carlos A. Camargo Jr., who directed the analysis. "Clearly people should drink less than two drinks a day and probably less than one a day."

Camargo described the results Wednesday at a meeting of the American Heart Association.

The study was conducted only on men, so the researchers cannot say for sure how much drinking is safe for women. But Camargo said other studies suggest that women can safely drink only about half as much as men. So if two to six drinks a week is the ideal amount for men, one to three drinks may be a safe limit for women.

One surprise was the relationship between drinking and traumatic deaths. While heavy drinking clearly raises the risk of dying in car accidents and other violent events, the study found that moderate drinking actually seemed to reduce the chances of dying this way.

Those who took less than one drink a day had a 31 percent lower risk of dying from violence or suicide.
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Publication:Modern Brewery Age
Date:Nov 28, 1994
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