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Women face a dilemma when it comes to alcohol. Some studies find benefits, some find risks.
One study from the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital finds that women in midlife who drink one alcoholic beverage per day of any kind may be healthier as they get older than women who do not drink at all.
But more is not better because those drinking one a day are also healthier than those who consume more than two drinks a day, or those who consume four drinks or more at one time.
The study suggests that in women, regular, moderate alcohol consumption during middle age (average age 58 years) is related to good overall health in those who live to 70 years and beyond. "Good overall health" is defined as having no major chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes, and no major cognitive and physical impairment, or mental health limitations. The authors call this "successful aging."
The researchers found that women who drank 5-15 grams of alcohol per day (between a 1/3 and 1 drink per day) had about a 20% higher chance of good overall health when older compared to non-drinkers. Furthermore, women who drank alcohol regularly had a better chance of good overall health when older than occasional drinkers. Compared to women who didn't drink at all, women who drank five to seven days a week had almost 50% greater chance of good overall health when older.
The authors concluded that "regular, moderate consumption of alcohol at midlife may be related to a modest increase in overall health status among women who survive to older ages."
Alcohol and Heart Health
One laboratory study seems to agree with the slow and steady approach to drinking, at least when it comes to heart health. Research published in the journal Atherosclerosis shows that patterns of alcohol consumption -- a drink or two every night, or several cocktails on Friday and Saturday nights only -- may be more important in determining alcohol's influence on heart health than the total amount consumed.
Researchers found that daily moderate drinking -- the equivalent of two drinks per day, seven days a week -- decreased atherosclerosis in mice. But binge drinking -- the equivalent of seven drinks a day, two days a week -- increased development of the disease.
Levels of LDL or so-called "bad" cholesterol also plummeted 40 percent in the daily-moderate drinking mice, but rose 20 percent in the weekend-binge drinking mice, compared to the no-alcohol controls. In addition, levels of HDL or "good" cholesterol went up in both the moderate and binge drinking groups.
Another unexpected finding was that the binge drinking mice gained significantly more weight than the moderate and control mice. Though all mice started at approximately the same weight and consumed similar amounts of food over the course of the study, the binge mice gained more than three times as much weight as the moderate mice and about twice as much weight as the control mice.
Alcohol and Breast Cancer
While moderate, regular alcohol drinking may benefit heart health, weight control and healthy aging in general, there is one big concern for women and that is breast cancer.
Even one drink every other day increases breast cancer risk by about 17% according to Dr. Walter Willett, Chairman of Nutrition at Harvard University's School of Public Health. That puts women over 50 in a bind because alcohol could reduce heart disease but increase cancer risk.
The good news is that studies show the increased breast cancer risk is only evident in women with low folic acid levels. Dr. Willett's advice to women over 50 is make sure you get the recommended daily allowance of 400 mcg of folic acid if you drink alcohol.
How do you get folic acid in your diet?
Folic acid is the synthetic version of vitamin B9 and is widely available in supplement form. However it occurs naturally as folate in dark leafy greens (especially spinach, collards and turnip greens), asparagus, broccoli, avocado, dried beans, lentils, peas and fruits (banana, papaya and melons).
Much has been made about the special health benefits of red wine and it does seem to be less harmful for you than white - at least when it comes to breast cancer risk. Research shows that red grapes and red wine contain natural aromatase inhibitors that may undermine the ability of breast tumors to produce their own estrogen. So while it may not reduce breast cancer risk, red wine may have a neutral effect on risk.
Researchers continue to study the effects of alcohol but for now moderate drinking seems to be beneficial for women who also eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
For more information on women's health consult GreenMedInfo's Women's Health Guide.