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January 9, 2008 | Health

A little alcohol ''can be healthy''

A little alcohol combined with a healthy active lifestyle may be the best recipe for a longer life. A European Heart Journal study suggests the combination can cut the risk of heart disease. A Danish team found people who led an active lifestyle were less prone to heart disease - but the risk was cut still further if they drank moderately. However, UK experts warned people should not be encouraged to drink, as too much alcohol can be very damaging.

The researchers followed nearly 12,000 men and women for nearly 20 years, during which 1,242 died from ischaemic heart disease (IHD). Overall, they found people who did not drink or take any exercise had the highest risk of heart disease - 49% higher than people who either drank, exercised or did both. When comparing people who took similar levels of exercise, they found that those who drank moderately - one to 14 units of alcohol a week - were around 30% less likely to develop heart disease than non-drinkers. This finding held good for people who were completely inactive, through to those who took vigorous regular exercise - with the overall risk declining as exercise levels increased. Non-drinkers who were physically active had a 31%-33% reduced risk of IHD compared to physically inactive non-drinkers.

But their reduced risk was dwarfed by physically active people who drank at least one drink a week - their risk was up to 50% lower than that of physically inactive non-drinkers. Past research has suggested that alcohol consumption may decrease the risk of heart disease by increasing the levels of "good" cholesterol and possibly thinning the blood. It was a similar story when the researchers looked at deaths from all causes: physical activity appeared to reduce the risk, while moderate drinkers fared better than their abstemious peers across all physical activity levels. Researcher Professor Morton Gronbaek, from Copenhagen''s National Institute of Public Health, said: "Our study shows that being both physically active and drinking a moderate amount of alcohol is important for lowering the risk of both fatal IHD and death from all causes." Ellen Mason, a cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: "The combination of moderate drinking and physical activity appears to be a winning one in reducing the risk of fatal heart disease.

"However, drinking too much starts to outweigh the benefits of alcohol intake and can increase your blood pressure. "Physical activity has shown greater benefits to heart health and overall health in previous research compared to drinking alcohol. "Alcohol is a depressant whereas exercise releases mood-enhancing hormones which can benefit quality of life as well as reduce the risk of death."

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