People who drink moderate amounts of alcohol may be less likely to develop blockages in the arteries that supply blood to the legs, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
These results back up previous research suggesting that light drinking may in fact help to prevent cardiovascular problems.
The study of almost 4,000 people, all aged 55 years old or older, found that women and non-smoking men who had one or two drinks each day were less likely than non-drinkers to have peripheral arterial disease (PAD).
The research, carried out by Jacqueline Witteman and Rozemarijn Vliegenthart of Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, found that the strongest effect was on women who did not smoke and consumed more than 20 grams of alcohol per day, (two glasses of wine). These women were 59 per cent less likely to have PAD than those who did not drink on a daily basis.
Peripheral arterial disease is a result of atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty material in the arteries in the legs. The blocked arteries, or PAD, can in turn cause leg cramps in patients when walking. Atherosclerosis is also a factor in strokes and heart attacks.
In order to gauge the effect of alcohol on atherosclerosis, the researchers matched levels of drinking to PAD. Since patients with PAD often have no symptoms, they are less likely to have recently reduced their drinking to improve their condition, the researchers said.
Each 200 ml serving of beer was said to contain 8g of alcohol for the purposes of the research, while a 100 ml glass of wine had 10g of alcohol and 50 ml of spirits contained 14g of alcohol.
The study showed that women consuming up to 10g of alcohol per day were 34 per cent less likely to have PAD than non-drinkers. Those drinking more than 20g reduced their risk by 22 per cent.
Study participants were separated into two groups according to whether they were smokers or non-smokers. This was partly because the researchers found no significant effect of alcohol consumption on PAD in men, and as such a division according to gender would have been pointless.
The results showed that all non-smokers who drank moderately were less likely to have PAD, although the effect was stronger in women.
The researchers said that the mixed results were due to the different drinking habits of the participants in the study. Women preferred wine and spirits, with only 5.2 per cent drinking beer, while for the men, consumption was predominantly focused on beer, with more than half opting for that over wine or spirits.
Vliegenthart said that alcohol is thought to decelerate atherosclerosis by inhibiting the oxidation of cholesterol and thus preventing it from accumulating inside arteries. As atherosclerosis is often a precursor to other cardiovascular problems, light drinking may be a means of promoting a healthy heart and blood vessels in general.
However, as with most research of this kind, it is important not to take things out of perspective. Drinking alcohol can be beneficial in moderation, but it can also lead to serious health conditions such as alcoholism, stroke, high blood pressure and obesity.
Vliegenthart added that the results only show that PAD can be associated with moderate drinking, and that more research was needed over a longer period.