Moderate drinking slashes the risk of a heart attack or stroke, a major study reveals today.
Research from 1.9million adults appears to show that the occasional glass of wine or pint of beer may provide a protective effect.
Men and women who drank moderately – within 14 units of alcohol a week – were found to be less at risk of common heart problems than teetotallers.
This is equivalent to no more than a small glass of wine each night or a pint of very weak beer, or two measures of spirits.
But adults who exceeded this limit – defined as heavy drinkers – greatly increased their risk of common heart complications.
Cambridge University researchers believe moderate amounts of alcohol may boost levels of good cholesterol in the blood.
This may help protect against certain types of heart disease including heart attacks, strokes, angina, severe chest pain, and heart failure – the weakening of the heart.
The scientists urged adults not to start drinking to try to protect their hearts and advised them to take up exercise instead.
But the findings go against guidance from the Chief Medical Officer last year claiming no consumption of alcohol was safe. Dame Sally Davies said even small amounts could increase the risk of cancer and liver disease.
Around 58 per cent of British adults drink regularly, including one in four who exceed the recommended limit of 14 units a week.
The researchers, from Cambridge University and University College London, looked at the records of 1.94million British men and women over 30.
They recorded their drinking habits from the previous five years and then observed whether they had heart attacks, strokes or other heart conditions over six years.
The results, in the British Medical Journal, showed adults who drank no alcohol were 32 per cent more likely than moderate drinkers to have a heart attack.
They were 56 per cent more at risk of fatal heart disease, had a 24 per cent higher risk of heart failure and were 56 per cent more likely to die of coronary heart disease.
Heavy drinkers were 22 per cent more likely to have heart failure, had a 33 per cent higher risk of stroke and a 50 per cent higher risk of cardiac arrest.
The researchers stressed that even though small amounts of alcohol may protect against heart disease, they may increase the risk of cancer and liver disease.
Author Stephen Bell, of Cambridge University, said: ‘There are arguably safer and more effective ways of reducing cardiovascular risk … which do not incur increased risks of alcohol-related harm such as alcohol dependence, liver disease and cancer.’
Some experts said the results may be skewed by the fact non-drinkers include former alcoholics or patients with long-term illnesses. A spokesman for Alcohol Concern, said: ‘When it comes to alcohol, there is no safe limit.’