Scientists have identified a gene that may help explain why moderate drinking can ward off heart attacks.
The researchers found that a variant of the gene makes the body break down alcohol very slowly. That slow breakdown, in turn, appears to raise levels of heart-protecting "good cholesterol" in the blood.
Moderate drinkers with the gene variant were found to have a sharply lower risk of heart attack than those whose bodies dispense with alcohol more quickly, according to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Moderate alcohol consumption has long been known to ward off heart disease, but the latest research shows the influence of this one genetic variation.
The gene produces enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenase that break down alcohol. The gene comes in two forms: One metabolizes alcohol quickly, the other slowly. People inherit one copy of the gene from each parent, so they can end up with two genes that make the fast-working enzymes, two that make the slow enzymes, or one of each.
The researchers theorize that keeping alcohol in the body longer than normal raises levels of HDL, or good cholesterol.
The research was reported in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.
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