Further evidence to support the view that the odd tipple may help, rather than harm, the body was presented this week by the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
Researchers from the NIA's Gerontology Research Centre found that light to moderate amounts of alcohol - be it wine, beer or spirits - may slow the stiffening of the arteries that occurs as a natural part of aging. The benefit was more than 20 per cent in people over the age of 70.
The study, presented yesterday at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2001 conference in Anaheim, California, also found that neither abstaining nor excessive drinking has the same beneficial effect.
"A little bit may be good, but too much may override it," says study co-author Dr. Jerome Fleg. "Our findings follow other epidemiologic data that large amounts of alcohol actually increase blood pressure."
The US researchers are unsure why, or even if, alcohol is responsible for the beneficial effect and they have yet to discover the underlying mechanisms.
The researchers looked at 563 volunteers, aged 20 to 90, who participated in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, a National Institutes of Health-sponsored survey that began in 1958.
They used ultrasound for two measurements of the participants' carotid (neck) arteries: the arterial stiffness index (the relationship between the artery's blood pressure and its dimensions) and intimal media thickness (the thickness of the innermost layers of an artery).
Participants also filled out questionnaires about how much beer, wine and spirits they consumed, and they were divided into four groups based on their responses: those who abstained; occasional drinkers (less than one unit a week); light-to-moderate drinkers (between one and 9.9 units a week), and heavy drinkers (10 or more units weekly). A unit was defined as one four- to five-ounce glass of wine, one 12-ounce beer or two ounces of spirits.
The beneficial effect of alcohol was greatest in older study participants. Light to moderate drinkers under age 50 had about 15 per cent lower stiffness than teetotalers. In those over age 70, however, stiffness was almost 30 per cent lower in those who were light to moderate drinkers.
The researchers commented that the next step is to follow study participants over time to see if the results remain the same.