March 22, 2008— -- Looking for a good excuse to tip back a beer?
A decade's worth of health research shows that regular, moderate beer intake--one to two 12 ounce glasses per day for men and one for women--can be good for you, especially if you're facing some of the most common diseases related to aging.
Experts say wine tends to get most of the attention when it comes to the health benefits of alcohol primarily because of the French paradox, a reference to the relatively low rate of heart disease in France in spite of a diet high in saturated fat. The idea is that daily sips of Merlot make the difference.
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But a number of studies are showing that moderate consumption of alcohol, including beer, can have similar heart healthy effects, including making men 30 to 35% less likely to have a heart attack than those who abstain.
"Wine is still on moral high ground," says Charlie Bamforth, chair and professor of the department of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis, "but beer deserves just the same acclamation."
Interest in the health effects of beer has been growing over the past eight to 10 years in tandem with a rise in the popularity of craft beers--usually defined as products of brewers who make fewer than 2 million barrels a year, says Nancy Tringali Piho, a spokeswoman for the National Beer Wholesalers Association.
Unlike many mass-produced beers, craft beers tend to be brewed with a particular focus on flavor, appearance and aroma. Their appeal has attracted an upscale audience that's curious about the beverage and how it compares with wine health-wise.
The news is good, particularly for baby boomers, many of whom are dealing with obesity and high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
Alcohol, including beer, in moderation raises high-density lipoprotein or HDL, known as good cholesterol, says Dr. R. Curtis Ellison, chief of the section of preventive medicine and epidemiology and professor of medicine and public health at the Boston University School of Medicine. It also appears to have a favorable effect on the lining of blood vessels, making them less likely to form a clot or for a clot to rupture and plug an artery, and may help protect against Type 2 diabetes.
"People should realize that a little bit of alcohol on a regular basis decreases the risks of aging," says Ellison, who specializes in researching, among other things, the relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and chronic diseases.
And earlier this month researchers at the National Institutes of Health released a study showing that frequent drinking in moderation may protect men from death due to cardiovascular disease. Men who reported drinking 120 to 365 days a year had a 20% lower cardiovascular death rate than those who drank one to 36 days a year. Overdoing it, however, can have the opposite effect. Men who knocked back five or more drinks when they did indulge had a 30% greater risk for death via heart disease.
Beer may also give your brain a boost.
Adults over age 65 who drank one to six alcoholic beverages over the course of the week turned out to have a lower risk of dementia than non-drinkers or heavier drinkers, according to a 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Likewise, a 2006 report that appeared in an American Heart Association journal showed that a drink or two a day might be linked to better cognitive function in women.
Consume With CautionOf course, beer isn't good for everyone. Other studies have shown that consuming two or more glasses of alcohol a day may increase a woman's risk of breast cancer, and few medical experts will suggest that a non-drinker take up the habit just for the health benefits, when exercise and a good diet can produce similar benefits.
And Bamforth says he's not so sure that the growing selection of organic beers, those that don't contain sulfites, chemical preservatives and are made with mostly, if not all, organic ingredients, or beers flavored with antioxidant-laden super-fruits will have much of a health impact. It's the alcohol content, as well as vitamins and minerals, in beer that has proved to make a difference.
More important, he doesn't recommend that people think of beer as medicine. Beer is something to enjoy, he says. Just don't feel guilty about indulging.
"In moderation," Bamforth says, "it's part of a wholesome diet."