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To raise a glass 'to your health' or not?

wine

Research may find the answer is 'yes'

October 18, 1996
Web posted at: 7:20 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Eugenia Halsey

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Is moderate drinking good for your health? Nearly three dozen studies suggest that a few drinks a week could help prevent heart disease. Now, the government wants to know if alcohol can also stave off brittle bones and help protect older women from other diseases.

on tap

To learn more about alcohol's effects, a government agency, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, has awarded more than $2 million of taxpayer money in grants for scientific study of the question.

The NIAAA was founded in 1970 to deal with the serious health problems caused by heavy drinking. Its decision to check out the flip side, whether light drinking can actually do some good, is not in conflict with its original mission, said Dr. Mary Dufour, deputy director of the agency.

"Our mission is research, and so we think this is an important thing to check out," she said.

The $2 million-plus grants will fund 15 new studies on the effects of moderate drinking. Some of the money went to the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where researcher Nicolas Guzman is trying to learn how alcohol may help prevent heart disease.

spinal scan on computer

He thinks it may block the formation of sticky proteins that can lead to clogged arteries. "We feel that if we can identify the mechanisms by which alcohol inhibits the presence of these sticky proteins, we may perhaps in the future develop drugs or medicines that may have a similar effect," he said.

Other scientists are looking at preliminary data that shows moderate drinking -- no more than seven drinks a week -- can increase estrogen levels.

Dr. Judith Gavaler's group at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation is working on this aspect. If alcohol does raise estrogen levels, it might prevent heart disease and stop bone loss in post-menopausal women.

Their preliminary research has shown that heavier drinking doesn't seem to help estrogen levels, and in some cases, can be harmful.

Gavaler

"That's actually quite a phenomenal finding, because it gives us a way of saying it is absolutely true that a little alcohol is good but additional alcohol -- more than seven drinks a week -- is probably not good," Gavaler said.

Even if research demonstrates the benefits of alcohol, doctors who treat problem drinkers say alcoholics and people at risk for abusing alcohol shouldn't assume a drink or two a day is good for them.

"There's an enormous downside associated with alcohol use, and that's why the medical profession in general is cautious about advocating even any drinking," said Dr. Rodney Burbach, an alcohol addiction specialist.

Still, scientists say the new government studies reflect a marked change in national policy on alcohol. It may no longer be the demon it once was.

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