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Alcohol linked to decreased hypertension risk in young women

BOSTON — March 10, 2002 — Moderate alcohol consumption can lead to a reduced risk of developing hypertension in young women, according to researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH). The study results, published in the March 11 Archives of Internal Medicine, use data from the Nurses' Health Study II, which is based at BWH.

"For women in their 20s to 40s, we found that alcohol intake at moderate levels was beneficial to blood pressure and at high levels it was harmful," says Ravi Thadhani, MD, MPH, of the Renal Unit at MGH and the Channing Laboratory at BWH, the paper's lead author. Thadhani and his colleagues found that the association between alcohol consumption and risk of chronic hypertension in young women follows what is called a J-shaped curve: Light drinkers had a decreased risk compared with nondrinkers, but heavier drinkers had an increased risk.

Thadhani and his team gathered data from over 70,000 women aged 25 to 42 years old at the study's outset in 1989, who did not report having hypertension during the study's early years. After eight years of follow-up, the scientists found that women who drank about two or three drinks a week had a risk of developing hypertension about 15 percent lower than that of nondrinkers. However, women who drank on average more than 10 or 12 drinks per week had a 30 percent increased risk of developing the condition.

The study also looked at patterns of alcohol consumption. "We found that episodic or binge drinking didn't increase the risk of high blood pressure compared to drinking more regularly," says Thadhani. But he cautions that binge drinking is associated with stroke, cardiovascular disease and trauma.

Thadhani and his colleagues also investigated whether there were any differences in the type of drink consumed. At the higher levels of consumption, all beverages - beer, wine, and liquor - increased blood pressure, whereas there was a suggestion that moderate beer drinking led to lower blood pressures. The researchers note that more work needs to be done on this area.

"This study suggests that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may be one way to modify a woman's risk of developing high blood pressure," says Thadhani. He stresses the importance of maintaining a healthy blood pressure because chronic hypertension is associated with heart attack, stroke, and kidney disease. "Our next step is to understand how alcohol affects women of different races and ethnicity, since one group may respond differently than another. We also want to see if modifying alcohol consumption can help women who already have high blood pressure get to a healthier level," says Thadhani.

Other co-authors of the report include Carlos A. Camargo, Jr, MD, DrPH, and Gary C. Curhan, MD, ScD, of MGH; and Meir J. Stampfer, MD, DrPH; Walter C. Willett, MD, DrPH; and Eric B. Rimm, ScD, the study's senior author, of Harvard School of Public Health and BWH. The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

The Massachusetts General Hospital, established in 1811, is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The MGH conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the United States, with an annual research budget of more than $300 million and major research centers in AIDS, the neurosciences, cardiovascular research, cancer, cutaneous biology, transplantation biology and photomedicine.

Brigham and Women's Hospital is a 716-bed nonprofit teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. The hospital's preeminence in all aspects of clinical care is coupled with its strength in medical research. A leading recipient of research grants from the National Institutes of Health, BWH conducts internationally acclaimed clinical, basic and epidemiological studies.

In 1994, the MGH and BWH joined to form Partners HealthCare System, an integrated health care delivery system comprising the two academic medical centers, specialty and community hospitals, a network of physician groups and nonacute and home health services.

Media Contact: Sue McGreevey , MGH Public Affairs
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