A drop of the good stuff

1st June 2007 at 01:00
Alcohol doesn't have to be all bad. Phil Hammond explains why you should sip and savour the next glass

An alcoholic, as the adage goes, is someone who drinks more than his doctor. So why should you take drinking advice from me? Large amounts of alcohol are clearly bad for you (and your carpet) but this doesn't mean that small amounts are a bit bad. Indeed, the opposite is true, especially as you get older.

The trick is to think of alcohol as a medicine, and take small amounts regularly. The type probably doesn't matter too much, but a glass or two of wine, beer or whisky a day is healthy (depending on the size of the glass, and whether you have to operate heavy machinery).

We've known that alcohol in moderation is good for you for a long time, but our rather puritanical culture has had difficulty accepting it. In 1926, studies discovered that the relationship between alcohol and longevity is J-shaped - moderate drinkers live longer, on average, than both teetotallers and heavy drinkers.

Alcohol extends life largely by reducing your risk of heart disease and, since this is our biggest killer and gets more common as we get older, there is now an overwhelming case for moderate drinking from mid-life onwards.

There are two stages to a heart attack. The first is the build-up of a fatty plaque in the walls of the coronary arteries that supply blood to the muscle of the heart. The result is severe narrowing of these vessels. A heart attack occurs when a travelling blood clot lodges in the narrowed coronary artery, abruptly cutting off the blood supply to that part of the heart muscle. It dies and so, sometimes, do you.

Alcohol has beneficial effects on both these stages; it reduces build-up of the fatty plaque and it lowers the chances of blood clots forming. Add these effects together and regular, moderate drinking cuts the risk of heart attack or stroke in half.

As I get older, I've found the trick is to buy really good wine, beer or lager and drink it slowly. As your prostate gets bigger (men only) and your bladder gets smaller (all of us), there's a lot to be said for taking it slowly, savouring the taste and watering the roses

Dr Phil Hammond is a GP, writer and broadcaster

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