Drinking a little each week protects your heart if you have a cardiovascular condition, study finds

(CNN)If you are living with heart disease, having a small amount of alcohol each day is linked to a lower risk of having another heart attack, stroke, angina (heart pain because of constricted arteries) or an early death, according to a new large study.

"This is not the general population -- the study applies to people who have already had something happen that relates to cardiovascular health," said alcohol researcher Emmanuela Gakidou, who is senior director of organizational development and training at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
"And what they find is that if you continue to drink after you've had a cardiac event, it's not that bad for you, as long as you keep consumption low," said Gakidou, who was not involved with the study.
    When compared with people who do not drink at all, the study found drinking up to 105 grams of alcohol each week -- the equivalent of just over a bottle of wine or a six-pack of medium strength beer -- appeared to protect people who had already suffered a heart problem from having another occurrence or an early death.
      That's much less than the recommended upper drinking limit set by the World Health Organization for men and women (166 grams per week) or the limit for men currently recommended in the United Statues (196 grams per week).
      However, the most benefit came from drinking less than half that amount, according to the study published Monday in the journal BMC Medicine.
      "Our findings suggest that people with CVD (cardiovascular disease) may not need to stop drinking in order to prevent additional heart attacks, strokes or angina, but that they may wish to consider lowering their weekly alcohol intake," said study author Chengyi Ding, a postdoctoral student at University College London, in a statement.
        But this finding would not apply to everyone, as drinking alcohol raises the risk for certain diseases such as cirrhosis, tuberculosis and cancer and for alcohol-related accidents and injuries, Gakidou said.
        "If your main health condition risk is cancer, then the safest level of drinking is probably zero," Gakidou said. "And if you're younger than 40-years-old or so, the safest level of alcohol is still zero because younger adults die from injuries related to alcohol around the world."

        Largest alcohol/cardiovascular study to date

        In what researchers are calling the largest study to date to examine the risk of alcohol use in people with existing cardiovascular disease, data was collected from over 14,000 people who had already had a heart attack, stroke or angina and who were followed for up to 20 years. Results from an additional 12 studies was added to the analysis to make a combined sample of over 48,000 people.
        The new study found the lowest risk occurred when people with existing heart conditions drank from 6 to 8 grams of alcohol per day (42 to 56 grams a week). People who drank 8 grams of alcohol a day had a 27% lower risk of a second cardiovascular event compared with people with heart disease that did not drink.
        But when people drank a bit less -- only 6 grams of alcohol a day -- the benefit almost doubled. They had a 50% lower risk of having another heart attack, stroke or episode of angina than those who did not drink.
        That's not a lot of booze at one sitting. In the United States, that would be about a half a glass of regular beer or wine or 0.75 ounces of distilled spirits.
        In the UK, where a standard unit of alcohol is 10 milliliters or 8 grams, it's a bit more complicated. For example, "a pint of strong lager contains 3 units of alcohol," according to the UK's National Health Services. So 6 grams of alcohol would only be a third of a pint of strong lager a day.

        No amount of alcohol

        For decades, a "drink a day" was considered fine by public health standards because many similar studies over the years found a positive association between moderate drinking and a reduced risk of heart disease, the world's leading killer. In fact, most health organizations still allow one to two drinks a day for men and one or fewer drinks a day for women as part of their dietary guidelines.