Taking up drinking in middle age cuts heart disease risk but increases chances of dying from other causes

Taking up regular drinking in middle age might cut the risk of heart disease, finds research in Heart. But the catch is, it increases the risk of dying from something else.

The researchers studied 7735 men from general practices in 24 British towns. The men were screened for heart disease between 1978 and 1980 when they were aged between 40 and 59. And they were asked about lifestyle, including smoking and drinking, and their medical history. Five years later, 7157 of them completed questionnaires on lifestyle factors, including how much they drank regularly. They were then monitored for over 16 years.

More than 1600 men died during the monitoring period, and there were 874 major coronary heart disease “events” among the 6503 men who had not had heart disease at the initial screen.

Almost 90 per cent of the new regular drinkers drank between one and 15 units of alcohol weekly – classified as light drinking. And non-drinkers and occasional drinkers who took up regular drinking in middle age were less likely to have a heart attack or other serious non-fatal consequences of coronary heart disease than men who remained teetotal or who only drank occasionally.
But they were no less likely to die of heart or cardiovascular disease, and were actually 40 per cent more likely to die of other causes, such as cancer.

And men who already had heart disease at the initial screen, and who started to drink regularly in middle age, fared no better than occasional drinkers, in terms of overall death rate.

The popular wisdom is that light drinking is advisable for people wishing to reduce their risk of coronary heart disease, say the authors. But they conclude: “There is little evidence that taking up regular drinking in later life confers benefit overall, and indeed it may increase the risk of cancer and other non-cardiovascular deaths.”

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