Drink may not help prevent stroke

Hopkins study questions earlier findings on benefit

December 05, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

You may want to hold off on the holiday cheer.

A Johns Hopkins University study published yesterday says that moderate alcohol use may shrink the brain and, contrary to previous studies, may not reduce the risk of a stroke.

Researchers at the university's Bloomberg School of Public Health who studied 1,909 middle-aged and elderly people found that moderate drinkers had smaller brains than those who abstained.

The differences in brain sizes were so small that it's impossible to say if they affect cognitive abilities, said Jingzhong Ding, the lead author. But he said the magnetic resonance imaging tests also found nothing to show that alcohol reduces the chances of stroke.

"The study suggests that while we know moderate alcohol consumption may be beneficial in terms of coronary artery disease, the evidence of a benefit in terms of stroke risk is inconsistent," he said.

Studies have widely credited moderate alcohol use with reducing the risk of stroke. For years, experts have argued that evidence shows alcohol keeps blood vessel walls healthy by increasing levels of HDL, or "good cholesterol," that restrict harmful fat particles.

Experts said the Hopkins findings were hard to reconcile with earlier studies. "I guess you have to put everything into context," said Dr. Ralph L. Sacco, a neurologist and co-author of one of several studies saying moderate drinking reduces the risk of stroke.

"The totality of the evidence shows that up to two drinks a day does reduce the risk. Why they [Hopkins] didn't find it, I don't know," said Sacco, a professor of neurology and epidemiology at Columbia University's medical school.

Ding cautioned that the Hopkins study results should not be used to draw conclusions about the effects of alcohol on the brain. He said that the results are based on brain measurements taken only once on each test subject and that further studies should be conducted.

Researchers used MRIs to measure the brains of 1,909 men and women age 55 and older in North Carolina and Mississippi. All were participating in a long-term study on atherosclerosis.

Researchers categorized the subjects' drinking habits as either moderate (seven to 14 drinks per week), low (one to six per week), or occasional (less than one per week). The study also included former drinkers and those who never drank.

The researchers also found no links between alcohol intake and the frequency of white matter lesions or MRI infarctions - changes in the brain that signal an increased risk of stroke.

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