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Study: Light drinking may cut stroke risk

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(CNN) -- Studies have indicated that drinking alcohol in moderation can cut heart attack risks, and new research supports the theory that the same holds true for preventing strokes.

"Light to moderate alcohol consumption may be protective against ... stroke while heavy alcohol consumption increases the risk," said Kristi Reynolds, a doctoral student at Tulane University and co-author of the study, which is published in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association.

Tulane University researchers reviewed 35 studies from 1983 to 2002 and concluded that one to two drinks a day is associated with an almost 30 percent lower risk of stroke, the third leading cause of death in the United States.

But the findings don't mean the public should start an alcohol habit. The research also found that heavy drinkers increased their risk of stroke by more than 60 percent, canceling out any health benefits of alcohol.

"The implications of these findings should be examined cautiously," the study concluded. "Any advice regarding the consumption of alcohol should be tailored to the individual patient's risks and potential benefits."

While they agree there is some protection associated with moderate drinking, stroke experts said a cautious approach is best.

"There's no evidence not to drink in moderation, but we are not ready to be advocating this either," said Dr. Robert Adams, an official with the American Stroke Association and a professor at the Medical College of Georgia.

After analyzing the previous studies, the Tulane researchers found that someone who drank one to two drinks a day reduced their risk of ischemic stroke by 28 percent over alcohol abstainers.

Ischemic stroke occurs when a blood vessel to the brain is clogged, usually by a blood clot, and accounts for 80 percent of all strokes. Hemorrhagic strokes make up the rest, caused when a blood vessel in the brain bursts.

Drinkers of more than five drinks a day had a much greater risk of ischemic stroke -- about 69 percent greater compared with abstainers.

A drink is commonly defined as 12 ounces of beer or wine cooler, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

About 600,000 Americans have a stroke each year, with 160,000 deaths resulting, according to the American Stroke Association. It's also the leading cause of long-term disability in the nation.

Heavy drinking has been linked to an increased risk of stroke in numerous studies, but why moderate drinking might offer benefits is not fully known, Reynolds said. Theories have suggested that alcohol thins the blood and increases the amount of "good" cholesterol.

While research continues on the potential health benefits from moderate drinking, don't rely on alcohol to improve your health, officials said.

"If you really want to lower your risk for stroke, follow the mainstays," Adams advised. "These will go a long way in reducing your risks: Quit smoking, lower your cholesterol, start exercising and keep a healthy diet."

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