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Risk of arthritis half for ‘moderate’ female drinkers

A small amount of alcohol is better than none for women, research suggests. Flickr/Andrew Borodin

Women who consume three alcoholic drinks a week over a period of at least 10 years will halve their risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, a study has found, but experts warn that more heavy drinking can increase the risk of other chronic diseases.

The study of 34,141 Swedish women born between 1914 and 1948 found that those who regularly consumed a “moderate” amount - described by the authors as three drinks a week - between 1987 and 1997 were about half as likely to suffer from the disorder compared with non-drinkers.

The authors, from the Institute of Environmental Medicine at Karolinska Institute in Sweden, adjusted the results to factor in age, smoking and dietary habits. They stressed that the effect of higher amounts of alcohol on the disorder remains unknown.

Their findings are published today in the journal BMJ.

Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)recommends no more than two standard drinks a day for healthy men and women. It notes that excessive consumption has been linked to chronic diseases such as cirrhosis and high blood pressure.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory joint disorder that usually develops between the ages of 40 and 50. About 1% of the world’s population is affected - women three times more often than men.

For the study, the authors defined one standard glass of alcohol as approximately 500 millilitres of beer, 150 millilitres of wine or 50 millilitres of hard liquor. The reduced risk was similar for all three types of alcoholic drink.

Jake Najman, Professor of Population Health at the University of Queensland and Director of the Queensland Alcohol and Drug Research and Education Centre, said that many studies had looked at the outcomes of different levels of alcohol consumption, “and the broad thrust of them - and I know this is still a matter of some dispute - is that it’s more likely that there are some health benefits to small quantities of alcohol consumption across a range of diseases”.

Three glasses of alcohol a week was “probably more in the light category, but you’ll find that older women actually don’t drink much - so this amount could be considered moderate for them”.

The Million Women Study, an analysis by UK researchers of women’s health that takes in data from more than one million women aged 50 and over, found that even light consumption of alcohol was linked to an increase in the risk of breast cancer, although it was also associated with a decrease in the risk of cardiovascular disease.

“You’re better off overall if you drink small quantities,” Professor Najman said. “It’s an increase of 6% for breast cancer, but you’re decreasing heart disease, which is a bigger killer.”

Professor Mike Daube from Curtin University’s Public Health Advocacy Institute and the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth agreed that the alcohol consumption deemed moderate by the authors of the study was “very modest indeed – well under a drink a day.

"All drinkers – with or without arthritis – would do well to observe the NHMRC Guidelines, which recommend drinking no more than two standard drinks on any one day.

"Assuming no other medical reason (such as interaction with drugs) it’s unlikely that older women drinking less than one drink a day are going to come to any harm from this – and that of course is a long way from the kind of binge-drinking we are seeing in young men and women.

"So the best advice is still to follow the NHMRC Guidelines and talk to your doctor if you have any queries. I don’t think this is going to cause a massive rush on bottleshops by women in their 60s.”

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