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February 17, 2019

Moderate drinking is good for your heart if you're rich - study

"Binge drinkers of all incomes had the highest death rates, but differences between socioeconomic groups emerged in the group that drank moderately." /File
"Binge drinkers of all incomes had the highest death rates, but differences between socioeconomic groups emerged in the group that drank moderately." /File

Heavy drinking makes it more likely that you will die from heart disease if you are poor, but does not pose the same danger for rich people, new research reveals.

A study conducted in Norway found that those that had two to three drinks a week were actually at a lower risk of dying from the disease, especially if they were wealthy.

Previous research has shown that while poorer people tend to drink less than those with more disposable income, they still are more likely to be hospitalised for or die from alcohol-related illnesses, the study authors wrote.

By analysing data on more than 200,000 Norwegians, the new research showed that the significance of alcohol consumption as a factor in heart disease risk varies with income.

The study explains that, according to previous research, while people with lower incomes are known to be more likely to smoke cigarettes, leading to higher disease risk, they tend to die at higher rates from alcohol-related illnesses, even though they drink less of it.

The researchers refer to this as the 'alcohol paradox' and sought to work out just how dramatic the differences in its effects are based on socioeconomic status.

Binge drinkers of all incomes had the highest death rates, but differences between socioeconomic groups emerged in the group that drank moderately.

Overall, people who drank moderately - defined in the study as two to three drinks a week - had better chances of dodging heart disease than those that drank heavily, infrequently or not at all.

But, the authors noted that those who were moderate drinkers and in the highest income group were especially well-protected from heart disease risk.

According to the study, drinking 'very frequently' only threatened the life expectancy of those in the low income groups, while rich people seemed to fare just as well if they drank frequently.

"Interestingly, episodes of heavy drinking were somewhat more common among individuals with high [incomes], illustrating the widespread acceptance of this behavior in Norwegian society, even in the most health-conscious segment of the population," the study authors wrote.

In the US, about 56 per cent of people report drinking on at least a monthly basis, and about 15 million people are thought to have alcohol use disorder.

Taxes are raised to try to discourage people from buying the harmful substance, but vary from state to state in the US.

While Washington charges more than $35 per gallon of alcohol, Wyoming has no alcohol tax.

"Alcohol taxes are particularly high in Norway, and differences in financial resources to purchase alcoholic beverages could contribute to [the] difference" the researchers there found in its affects on heart disease risk, they wrote.

They suggest that the difference in alcohol's damaging effects may have to do with the likelihood that it was consumed with a meal.

When alcohol and food are consumed together, the digestion process gets spread out over a longer period of time, and the body is less likely to be flooded and damaged by alcohol.

"This reduces bio-availability of ingested alcohol overall and also delays and reduces peak blood alcohol concentration, which may attenuate the systemic toxic effects of alcohol," the study authors wrote.

"If drinking were more often accompanied by meals in one stratum of [wealth] such as those with high [incomes], it could account for a lower risk among binge drinkers compared to those not binge drinking, but not when considering alcohol as a protective factor," they added.

However, the authors admitted that many confounding variables could be at play, such as other behavior and lifestyle differences between the two groups.

The results "do not support a protective effect of alcohol on [heart disease] nor provide support for a causal effect of factors that were considered to mediate a protective effect of alcohol," they wrote.

The authors concluded: "In light of the sample size and number of events, and the heterogeneity in the most extreme drinking categories, it is difficult to conclude with confidence that there is no socioeconomic difference in the relationship between binge drinking and [heart disease] among adult Norwegians."

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