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Buzz Kill: 3 Daily Cocktails May Boost Stroke Risk: Study

People in their 50s and 60s who down more than two drinks daily have a 34 percent higher stroke risk compared to lighter drinkers, researchers say.
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You may want to keep that third beer of the night stashed in your fridge.

People in their 50s and 60s who down more than two alcoholic beverages daily have a 34 percent higher risk of stroke compared to lighter drinkers — and are more apt to suffer a stroke five years earlier in life regardless of their genetics or their other health habits, asserts a study released Thursday.

In fact, sipping beyond a two-drink maximum each day may boost a middle-aged person's stroke risk more than even traditional health dangers like high blood pressure and diabetes, say researchers who base their findings on tracking more than 11,000 Swedish twins for roughly half their lives.

"We are seeing more and more people who are having strokes at younger ages and we don't necessarily appreciate how much alcohol use may be contributing to that," said Dr. Shazam Hussain, head of the Cleveland Clinic stroke program. He is not associated with the study, which was published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke.

The rise in strokes among increasingly younger patients, as documented by doctors at the Cleveland Clinic, has long been linked to more modern Americans being diagnosed earlier with high blood pressure, diabetes or obesity, Hussain said. But the new, alcohol-consumption finding gives physicians another potential risk factor to monitor.

Will Hussain advise his patients to always call it a night after two cocktails? Not quite yet. There's too much conflicting science, he said, on how many sips of wine a night may be beneficial versus how many glasses of wine may be harmful over the span of many years.

"We know that the more you drink, the worse off you're going to be. Whether no alcohol versus a little bit of alcohol is any different, that's tough to say," Hussain said. "I'm a little hesitant to just recommend anything particularly about drinking."

Knocking back more than two drinks per day was defined by the study's authors as "heavy" drinking — certainly, a subjective term for some Americans. But those findings are consistent with the American Heart Association’s recommended limit of two drinks a day for men and one for women. That’s equals about eight ounces of wine (two drinks) for a man and four ounces (one drink) for a woman.

The scientists drew that hard line at three or more daily drinks by dissecting the lifestyle choices and health accounts of 11,644 middle-aged twins who were followed for 43 years as part of the the Swedish Twin Registry. Participants answered questionaries for several years. All were under 60 when they joined the registry. Almost 30 percent of participants suffered a stroke.

At about age 75, blood pressure and diabetes seemed to re-emerge the main influences on having a stroke, researchers said.

"This study ... is extremely interesting, because they were able to follow these people for a long period of time. It was done in twins, which allows you to eliminate a lot of factors," said Dr. Demetrius Lopes, a neurosurgeon and director of cerebrovascular surgery at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

"The question is: How much is too much alcohol? ... The amount defined as 'heavy drinking' doesn’t mean you’re drunk every day," Lopes said.

In fact, many Americans with a European heritage routinely have some wine with dinner every night, Lopes said.

"But it’s important to be aware that it’s not as benign as we thought. Its protective range is only within the two drinks for men and one for women. That range is definitely not harmful, and some studies have even shown protective effect at this level of drinking.

"This study points to the importance of the upper limit of alcohol," Lopes added. "It is a misconception that if a glass of red wine is good, more is even better. That’s a fine balance."