Q. I have read that drinking a glass or two of wine a day can help prevent heart attacks. Is this true for women? I don’t drink that much, should I start?
A.You are referring to the studies that have shown that women who drink one or two glasses of wine – or any kind of alcoholic beverage for that matter – have higher levels of HDL, “good cholesterol”, which protects against heart disease. Since heart disease is the number-one killer of women, anything that can prevent this problem warrants serious consideration.
Still, I don’t think there’s a responsible doctor on the planet who is going to advise a patient who does not drink to begin drinking. Whatever health benefits can be achieved from alcohol are quickly offset by the very real risks associated with problem drinking. Although the studies are inconclusive, women who drink heavily may be at greater risk of getting breast cancer than those who abstain. Heavy drinking is also associated with cirrhosis of the liver, which can be more severe in women. Even moderate drinkers may be at greater risk of getting osteoporosis, a disease that is characterized by the thinning of the bones.
Of special concern is the fact that incidents of solitary drinking among woman are increasing, and especially among older women. In fact, the American Medical Association AMA recently alerted physicians to the fact that alcohol abuse is on the rise in older patients who may use alcohol to cope with depression and loneliness.
Given the downside of alcohol, I believe that if you don’t drink, there is no reason to start. If you do drink, do not exceed two glasses of alcohol a day. (A standard drink is defined as containing half an ounce of absolute alcohol. By this measure, the typical glass of wine is 4-5 ounces, a serving of hard liquor is about 1 ounce.)
There are some women who should not drink alcohol under any circumstances. Among them are women who are pregnant or who are trying to conceive (alcohol can cause severe birth defects), women who have had a history of problem drinking or who come from a family with a history of alcohol addiction, and women who are taking medication that could interact with alcohol.
Dr. Marianne Legato, Professor Emerita of Clinical Medicine at Columbia University is an internationally known academic physician, author, lecturer, and specialist in gender-specific medicine. She is founding member of the International Society for Gender Medicine and also the founder and director of The Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University and its next iteration, The Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine. These enterprises are the first collaborations between academic medicine and the private sector focused solely on gender-specific medicine: the science of how normal human biology differs between men and women and of how the diagnosis and treatment of disease differs as a function of gender and sex. Her ground breaking textbook on Gender-and Sex Specific Medicine has been published in 2017 in the 3rd edition.
She has published extensively on Gender and Sex Specific Medicine, both scientifically and for the lay public. She is also the founding editor of the journal Gender Medicine, and the Journal Gender and Genome, published for the scientific community. In 1992, Dr. Legato won the American Heart Association’s Blakeslee Award for the best book written for the lay public on cardiovascular disease. She is a practicing internist in New York City and has been listed each year in New York Magazine’s “Best Doctors” since the feature’s inception in 1993.