Dear Doctor: I enjoy a nice glass of wine at the end of the day, but I've heard various reports about its health risks. So, tell me: In women, does alcohol increase or decrease the chances of premature death?
Dear Reader: It depends on the amount. The most definitive study on this topic was done in 1995. It looked at more than 85,000 women, ages 34 to 59, and followed them for 12 years. That research found that having one drink (2 units of alcohol) every three to four days was linked to a significant decrease -- 17 percent -- in death during the course of the study. One drink per day was linked to an 11 percent decrease in death rates. However, more than one drink per day increased death rates, compared to no alcohol at all.
For women, the greatest benefits of alcohol were in the link to reductions of stroke and heart attacks. Yet, as women increase their alcohol intake, the risk of cancer increases. In this study, there was a significant correlation between having two or more drinks per day and breast cancer.
In short, alcohol does have benefits when it comes to lifespan, but those benefits vanish when a woman drinks two or more drinks per day.
(Robert Ashley, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.)