TUESDAY, Jan. 2, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Men with high blood pressure who have a drink or two per day may be at lower risk for heart attack than men who don't drink at all, new research suggests.
The study of almost 12,000 hypertensive patients found that moderate drinking did not affect stroke risk or the risk for death from all causes, however.
But the good news is that "men with hypertension that drink moderately -- one to two drinks a day -- do not need to change those habits," according to study lead author Joline W. J. Beulens, a University Medical Center masters student at the Utrecht Julius Center for Health Sciences and Primary Care in Utrecht, The Netherlands.
Because the study involved men only, it's not yet clear if the findings apply to women, the researchers said.
According to the U.S. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, about one in three Americans now struggle with high blood pressure. Once diagnosed, this "silent killer" can double the risk for cardiovascular disease and death.
Excessive drinking is known to increase blood pressure. However, a handful of studies have suggested that hypertensive patients who consume a moderate amount of alcohol may reduce their risk of cardiovascular complications that lead to death.
According to experts, small amounts of alcohol may act to thin the blood while increasing levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol in such patients, resulting in a protective effect.
However, until now, no study has specifically explored the impact of moderate drinking on the incidence of non-fatal heart attacks and strokes among people with high blood pressure.
In their study, the researchers tracked more than 11,700 men diagnosed with high blood pressure who were between the ages of 40 and 75. The men were all participants in a larger U.S. national study involving male health professionals that began in 1986.
All the men in the study completed initial and follow-up questionnaires between 1986 and 2002 that collected information on their medical history, diets, and drinking habits.
Those who had a history of hypertension as early as 1975 were included in the final analysis, while the researchers excluded those whose condition had developed earlier or those who had a pre-1986 history of cardiovascular disease, stroke, or cancer.
During the 16 years of the study, 653 of the participants had a heart attack, and in 279 cases, the attack was fatal. However, Beulens and her team found that moderate drinking was associated with a decrease in the overall risk for heart attack.
Compared to abstainers, men with hypertension who drank about a drink per day were 32 percent less likely to experience fatal or non-fatal heart attack; men who drank between one and two drinks per day had a 28 percent lower risk.
This amount of daily drinking did not appear to affect the men's risk of death from all causes, however. And the researchers could not draw any firm conclusion as to links between drinking and stroke, due to the infrequent occurrence of strokes overall in the study.
Spirits, followed by beer and wine, were the most popular option among those study participants who drank. Moderate consumption of spirits also showed the strongest association with lowered heart attack risk, the researchers said.
While the study seems to support the notion that men with high blood pressure who drink in moderation can continue to do so, the decision to drink or not to drink needs to be made on a case-by-case basis, Beulens said.
"Abstainers usually have a good reason to do so," she noted, remarking that there are a host of legitimate medical and social factors that inform any decision not to drink in the first place. "So, it would not be desirable to advise them to start drinking."
The authors noted that very light drinking -- a glass every 2 or 3 days -- had no effect in reducing heart attack rates among hypertensive men.
The findings should not be seen as a recommendation for drinkers to drink more, Buelens said.
"Because drinking more than three drinks a day increases blood pressure and risk of hypertension, it is important to stick to the guideline of one to two drinks a day," she said.
For more on high blood pressure, head to the U.S. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.