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Off the Vine

A healthy glass in moderation
Researchers say that while wine may be good for your heart, it may be bad for your brain

Many studies have found that light drinking of red wine, beer or other alcohol may protect against heart disease to some extent. But a study published in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association's September issue finds that drinking alcohol has both pluses and minuses when it comes to three types of brain abnormalities: silent strokes, brain atrophy and white matter lesions, all of which interfere with mental and neurological functioning.

Researchers led by Kenneth Mukamal, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, looked at brain scans of 3,376 men and women, all over age 65, who were part of the Cardiovascular Health Study, a long-term national study of heart disease and other conditions of old age.

One surprising result was that the brain seems to shrink for all drinkers, and the more a person drank, the more the brain shrank. Previous studies of brain atrophy (shrinking partly because cells are dead or dying) tended to look at alcoholics, not occasional drinkers. "This changes somewhat what we have thought about alcohol," said Dr. Mukamal.

Other researchers say that red wine is only part of the picture. While a daily glass have been show to stave off heart disease and even cancer, a group of Danish scientists say the positive effects may be due to drinkers' overall lifestyles.

In a study of nearly 700 Danish adults, aged 29 to 34, comparisons were drawn between wine drinkers and beer and liquor consumers. Wine lovers had generally healthier habits and psyches and were less likely to abuse alcohol.

Wine drinkers also tended to have a higher socio-economic status and score higher on intelligence tests, which the study speculated had ramifications for physical health.

Researchers from the same country in 1995 published results of a study that showed subjects who consumed wine daily were less likely to die during the 12-year study period than abstainers, or consumers of other beverages with alcohol.

But, researchers contend, the best variety of wine for a healthy heart is Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1999, researcher Dr. Jean-Paul Broustet of Haut Léveque Hospital in Pessac, just south of the city of Bordeaux, said cabernet sauvignon grapes have high levels of resveratrol, a potent ingredient that increases good cholesterol and limits the production of artery-blocking bad cholesterol.

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