The next time you raise a glass of wine to toast a friend's health, you may be doing more than expressing goodwill. A great number of studies have been done to determine the therapeutic and disease-fighting powers of wine, both red and white. While some of the studies cited below are more conclusive than others, each of them offers a good reason to make wine part of daily life. Here are 10 of the most compelling findings.
1 Wine may prolong your life. In 1997 Michael Thun, M.D., and his colleagues at the American Cancer Society tallied the health-related pros and cons of alcohol consumption and found that one or two drinks a day over a nine-year period reduced a person's risk of death by 20 percent. "The lower mortality rates were driven primarily by a lower rate of cardiovascular disease and stroke," Dr. Thun explains. Moreover, in a French study published in 1998 involving more than 34,000 middle-aged men, the group that consumed a generous two to five glasses of wine a day had a 24 to 31 percent reduction in the overall death rate during the 10- and 15-year follow-up periods.
2 Wine decreases your risk of heart disease. In the past decade, more than a dozen studies have indicated that the consumption of up to one glass of wine or beer or one mixed drink a day for women and up to two a day for men may reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 50 percent. Researchers found that this level of wine consumption raises HDL cholesterol (the good kind, which prevents fatty deposits from building up in artery walls) and inhibits the formation of blood clots. It also enhances the factors that help break up blood clots when they form, according to Mary Ann Malloy, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Heart Association and a cardiologist at Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine in Maywood, Illinois. Additionally, recent research suggests that consuming wine with meals helps reduce the proliferation of smooth muscle cells inside the arteries, thereby preventing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
3 Wine can improve your blood-cholesterol level. Beyond the ability of moderate alcohol consumption to raise levels of heart-protective HDL cholesterol, a 1998 Finnish study of 300 middle-aged men suggests that social drinking (defined here as one to four glasses of wine a week) may also reduce blood concentrations of Lp(a) lipoprotein. This protein appears to play a role similar to that of harmful LDL cholesterol, leading to the deposit of fat in blood vessels. More than moderate drinking, however, can cause a rise in triglycerides, the fatty compounds in blood whose elevated levels have been found to predict heart attacks and atherosclerosis, particularly in women.
4 Wine may reduce your risk of arterial disease in the legs. In a 1997 study that was part of the ongoing Physicians' Health Study at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, researchers discovered that men who drink one or two alcoholic beverages a day have a 32 percent lower risk of peripheral arterial disease (PAD), or hardening of the arteries in the legs. This protective effect, the researchers speculate, may be due to the impact of alcohol on blood lipid levels, especially the impact on HDLs. It's also possible that alcohol improves the flow of blood to the extremities.
5 Wine might decrease your risk of blindness. In a 1998 study of more than 3,000 adults 45 to 74 years old, researchers from the National Health Nutrition and Examination Survey found that those who consume moderate amounts of wine have a significantly lower risk of developing age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness among men and women over 65. "We don't know exactly what's responsible for the positive effect," admits Antonio F. Vinals, M.D., an ophthalmologist and eye surgeon in New York City. Possible factors include wine's antioxidants (substances that prevent free radicals from causing cellular damage), tannins (astringent compounds) and flavonoids (substances in plants that have anti-inflammatory properties and other benefits), any or all of which may slow down the deterioration of the macula in the eye.
6 Wine may lower your chances of getting kidney stones. According to a 1998 report from the ongoing Nurses' Health Study at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, women who drink a glass of wine a day boast a 59 percent reduction in the risk of getting their first kidney stone. (Researchers there found similar benefits for men.) "Alcohol interferes with the secretion of antidiuretic hormone, which is responsible for telling the kidneys to concentrate the urine," ex-plains Gary Curhan, M.D., the study's lead author. "If you don't have it, your urine will be more dilute, which means you will urinate more; that in turn will help protect you from kidney stones." Wine may do a better job of this than beer, Dr. Curhan notes, thanks to its higher alcohol content.
7 Wine could improve your psychological outlook. Any oenophile can attest to the relaxing powers of a glass of fine wine. Now it looks as though wine may actually be psychologically beneficial. According to a study published in the September 1998 issue of The Lancet, adults (surveyed at ages 23 and 33) who drink moderately demonstrate a lower risk of poor physical health and of psychological distress than peers who are either teetotalers or heavy drinkers. "People who have one to two drinks a day tend to have a more moderate and balanced lifestyle and seem better able to handle stress," says Dr. Malloy.
8 Wine may prevent food poisoning. In a 1995 laboratory study, researchers at the Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu found that red and white wine killed off colonies of such bacteria as E. coli, salmonella and shigella more effectively than Pepto-Bismol did. Their conclusion: red and white wine may protect against bacterial diarrhea. "Drinking alcohol in moderation, especially wine and beer, stimulates acid secretion in the stomach, which might lower the risk of [getting sick from] food poisoning," notes Walter Peterson, M.D., a professor of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and an expert on diseases of the stomach. He adds, "You still have to maintain safe food practices, but you could get some added benefit by drinking wine."
9 Wine may protect you against Alzheimer's disease. In a 1997 study of more than 2,000 people 65 and over, researchers at the University of Bordeaux in France found that subjects who consumed a glass or two of wine a day had a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease. The scientists attributed this finding to the beneficial effects of the antioxidants found in wine. "It could also be that wine is having an effect on vascular disease," notes Marilyn Albert, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and neurology at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Medical and Scientific Advisory Council of the Alzheimer's Association. "We know that mild drinking reduces your risk of atherosclerosis, and the heart has a direct connection to the brain: when the heart is diseased, that often leads to disease in the brain. So it's possible that wine may reduce the dementia related to heart disease."
10 Wine won't make you fat. It has long been assumed that drinking alcohol--often referred to by nutritionists as empty calories--can make you gain weight. Recent research, however, suggests that moderate amounts of wine won't have that effect. A 1997 Colorado State University study of 14 healthy men found that drinking two glasses of red wine with a meal did not promote weight gain. "It appears that alcohol may influence insulin sensitivity," says Loren Cordain, Ph.D., the study's lead author. "People who drink moderately, as opposed to teetotalers, tend to be more insulin sensitive, which helps with weight regulation."
Stacey Colino, a San Francisco-based writer who specializes in health issues, enjoys an occasional glass of wine with dinner.