Moderate drinking reduces inflammation in the elderly

Julia Rommelfanger

February 09, 2004

Dallas, TX - Researchers may have discovered a biological basis for the link between moderate alcohol intake and a reduced cardiovascular (CV) event rate[1]. Healthy seniors who consume one to seven drinks per week have lower blood levels of the inflammation markers interleukin-6 (IL-6) and C-reactive protein (CRP) than those who do not drink at all and those having more than seven drinks per week.

This apparent anti-inflammatory effect, the authors report in the February 10, 2004 issue of Circulation, "may reflect a direct effect of ethanol on IL-6 metabolism." On this premise of ethanol influencing IL-6 production, the researchers, led by Dr Stefano Volpato (University of Ferrara, Italy), for the first time investigated the relationship between alcohol intake and three inflammatory markers, IL-6, CRP, and tumor necrosis factor- (TNF-), as well as plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1), a modulator of fibrinolytic activity. They analyzed data on alcohol intake and blood levels of anti-inflammatory markers from 2574 healthy seniors from Memphis, TN and Pittsburgh, PA, aged 70 to 79, who participated in the Health, Aging, and Body Composition study. In a questionnaire, all subjects had to report the number of drinks per week, independent of the type of alcoholic beverage. One drink was equal to a can of beer, a glass of wine, or a shot of liquor.

A shot a day keeps inflammation away?

Men and women participants who had one to seven drinks per week had the lowest levels of both CRP and IL-6, also after adjustment for confounding factors such as age, race, gender, education, smoking, diabetes, or physical activity. There was no association between alcohol intake and TNF- or PAI-1.

Adjusted levels of inflammatory markers according to average weekly alcohol intake

Alcohol intake

IL-6 (pg/mL)

CRP (mg/L)

TNF- (pg/mL)

PAI-1 (ng/mL)

Never 1.98 1.85 3.16 20.5
Former 1.95 1.86 3.16 19.7
<1 1.90 1.76 3.19 22.0
 1-7 1.83 1.87 3.13 21.5
8-14 2.20 2.21 3.25 25.0


Since moderate drinking has been associated with a reduced CVD risk in several studies, the observed relationship between alcohol intake and inflammation might offer one biological explanation for this protective effect. The authors point out that their analysis was the first to "demonstrate at a population level the association between alcohol intake and IL-6," which is a major regulator of CRP and plays a key role in the relationship between inflammation, obesity, stress, and CHD. A possible mechanism behind lower levels of inflammatory markers in light drinkers compared with nondrinkers could be a beneficial effect of ethanol on IL-6, Volpato and colleagues explain. Heavier drinkers, said Volpato, had higher levels of IL-6 and CRP because they were more likely to have alcohol-related diseases.

"I don't see major risks in drinking one to seven drinks per week," Volpato told heartwire . "However, I would not recommend drinking alcohol to reduce CVD risk on the basis of this single study." Additional lifestyle factors such as dietary profile could also have affected the results, he pointed out.

Their study, said Volpato, could not clarify whether the type of drink played a role in the reduction of inflammatory markers. Although one recent study had suggested a protective effect of alcohol independent of the type of beverage, "red wine contains different substances that might explain the relationship," he added.


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