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Study Questions Whether Moderate Alcohol Use Reduces Heart Attack Risk

Despite widespread medical opinion that alcoholic beverages may prevent heart disease, a leading medical expert is advising: don't start drinking just yet.

"Anybody who's worked in a hospital sees the hospital is full of patients that have alcohol related disease," says Dr. Ira Goldberg, head of Preventive Medicine at Columbia University in New York. "The hospital is not full of patients that have disease related to cholesterol and blood pressure-lowering medicines."

In an editorial in the current New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Goldberg of Columbia University said it is time to see whether alcohol actually prevents heart disease. Such a study would give alcoholic beverages, beer, wine, or liquor, to one group of heart disease patients and not another, and see which does better.

"I see patients all the time .. they come in and they say 'Well, instead of taking this cholesterol medicine, which I know works and is proven to work, how about I just drink some alcohol.' You know, it's a quick fix based on some incomplete data." Dr. Goldberg said. "So, you know, it depends how.. definitive you need the data. I think when you have an approach that has significant side effects, you need pretty definitive data."

Dr. Goldberg was commenting on the results of a study published in the New England Journal that are very similar to other results of surveys of large groups of people.

In the latest study, which followed a group of men over a 12-year period, researchers found that those who drank three or more drinks per week reduced their risk of heart attack by 35 percent compared to abstainers.

The lead author, physician Kenneth Mukamal of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, insists his study is different from the rest. For one thing, Dr. Mukamal said other studies have not looked at drinking patterns.

"It hasn't been so clear, say, seven drinks per week had to be consumed over seven days or it had to be seven drinks per week," he said. "This is really the first long-term study to look at that issue, and show what we found, namely that it's the freqency that made a difference."

Dr. Mukamal said his findings also appear to settle which alcoholic beverages are most heart healthy.

Beer and spirits, beer and liquor, were most associated with reduced risk.

Dr. Mukamal agrees with Dr. Goldberg that even if alcohol's health benefit's could be firmly established, it would be difficult to predict which heart patients would become alcoholics and those who would not.