WEDNESDAY, March 18, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Older men and postmenopausal women who have one or two glasses of beer or wine a day appear to have stronger bones than both nondrinkers and heavy drinkers, a new study suggests.
Moderate drinking has been associated with decreasing the risk for heart disease, but it also has been linked to increasing the risk for some cancers. And though their study found that beer and wine could be beneficial to bone strength, the researchers cautioned that people need to balance the risks and benefits of alcohol with their individual health concerns.
"We were looking at the relationship between different types of alcohol and bone mineral density [BMD] because there is a controversy about how it might affect bone," said lead researcher Katherine L. Tucker, director of the Dietary Assessment and Epidemiology Research Program at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.
Alcohol was protective of BMD in older men and postmenopausal women, Tucker said, "but we didn't see any relationship in premenopausal women."
Among women, she said, wine was very protective, and in men, beer was the most protective, "partly because men drink more beer and women drink more wine," she said. Drinking liquor was less protective, she added.
And men who had more than two drinks a day actually had the lowest BMD, Tucker said.
What that suggests is that the relationship is complex but there might be components in beer and wine that could help protect bone. For example, beer contains silicon, which has been associated with stronger bone. In wine, polyphenols, which have been linked to protection from heart disease, might also protect bone, she said.
The report is published in the April issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
For the study, Tucker's team collected data on 1,289 postmenopausal women, 248 premenopausal women and 1,182 men who took part in the Framingham Osteoporosis Study, an offshoot of the original Framingham Heart Study. The researchers looked at data on their drinking habits and took BMD measurements in their hips and spine.
Men who had one to two drinks of beer or alcohol a day had about 3 percent to 4 percent higher hip BMD than nondrinkers, the study found. In postmenopausal women who had more than two alcoholic drinks a day, including wine, hip and spine BMD measurements were found to be 5 percent to 8 percent greater than in women who didn't drink.
Although moderate drinking improved BMD, men who had more than two drinks a day had hip and spine BMD measurements 3 percent to 5 percent lower than in men who drank less, the study reported.
"Moderate intake of beer or wine is good for bone, but heavy drinking is bad," Tucker said. Heavy drinking is a major risk factor for osteoporosis, she added.
In addition, postmenopausal women have to balance the fact that any alcohol is associated with an increased risk for breast cancer, Tucker said.
"You really need to think about your own health risks and your family history and balance those," she said. "If your primary concerns are heart disease and osteoporosis, then a glass or two of wine is probably helpful. But if your primary concern is breast cancer, you really need to be careful of any alcohol."
Even moderate drinking can increase the risk of cancer in postmenopausal women, according to a study published in the Feb. 24 online edition of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The study, which included more than 1.2 million middle-age women, found that moderate drinking accounts for 13 percent of breast, liver, rectum and upper respiratory/digestive tract cancers.
Dr. Robert P. Heaney, a bone and nutrition expert at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., said he agreed that moderate drinking is good for bone.
"This study should be taken as confirmatory," Heaney said. "As the authors note, a bone benefit from moderate alcohol consumption has been described several times previously. The current study sought mainly to tie up some of the loose ends around the previously described findings."
"It can be said to boil down to the three basic features of good nutrition: moderation, variety and balance," he said. "Or, put another way: A little bit is better than none, and too much is too much."
The U.S. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases has more on bone health.