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To Drink or Not to Drink

By Kathy A SvitilAugust 6, 2005 5:00 AM


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It’s hard enough knowing what to eat—low carb? low fat? high protein?—that you’d think you could find a little clarity in alcohol. Is it healthy or harmful? Will it help you live longer? Is it good for your heart or your mind? To find out, we surveyed a collection of recent research reports. The results are muddled.

First, the good news: Moderate drinking may stave off mental decline in old age. A group of Harvard epidemiologists analyzed data from the 121,700-participant, three-decade-long Nurses’ Health Study and found that middle-aged women who drink a glass of wine a day (or its equivalent) are 20 percent less likely than nondrinkers to suffer from age-related memory impairment and other cognitive problems later in life. Meanwhile, Japanese scientists studying mice have found that certain unidentified compounds in lager and stout beer prevent DNA damage from heterocyclic amines, a class of cancer-causing chemicals found in cooked meats and fish.

But don’t start pounding back the pints just yet. The mice in the Japanese study were given a nonalcoholic brew, so it wasn’t alcohol that blocked the amines. Researchers at the University of Mississippi recently found that ethanol—the alcohol in alcoholic drinks—speeds tumor growth by stimulating blood vessel formation. And when Italian epidemiologists examined 156 studies of alcohol and cancer, they found that drinking as little as 25 grams of alcohol a day—two bottles of beer—increases the risk of cancers of the upper digestive tract, larynx, intestines, liver, and breast.

There is strong new evidence that the negative effects of alcohol outweigh the benefits. Alcohol-related illnesses add up to a huge worldwide health problem, says an international team of researchers reporting in the British medical journal The Lancet. Four percent of the “global burden of disease,” they say, can be blamed on alcohol—about as much death and disability as is caused by tobacco.

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