Drinking alcohol is not only good for the heart – it is good for the joints too. A regular tipple cuts the risk of rheumatoid arthritis by up to 50 per cent – and the more you drink the greater the protective effect.
Rheumatoid arthritis, caused by swelling in the joints, is a severe, painful condition which affects 500,000 people in the UK. The findings, from two studies in Sweden and Denmark, suggest that alcohol has an anti-inflammatory effect which might protect against similar diseases, the researchers say. They based their findings on more than 2,750 people in the studies who were assessed for genetic and environmental risks for rheumatoid arthritis.
All of the participants – half of whom had the disease – were questioned about their lifestyle, including how much they smoked and drank, and blood samples were taken to check for genetic factors. The arthritis sufferers were matched for age, gender and area of residence with randomly selected members of the public.
The heaviest drinkers downed 24 units on average a week, equivalent to 12 pints of beer or two and a half bottles of wine. The Danes consistently drank a third more than the Swedes.
The results showed that among those who drank regularly, people with the highest consumption had the lowest risk of developing the disease. In the Swedish study, the quarter with the highest consumption had a 50 per cent reduced risk compared with the half who drank least. In the Danish study, the heaviest drinkers were 40 per cent less likely to get the disease than the lighter drinkers. The effect was the same for men and women though women are twice as likely to be affected by the disease.
Rheumatoid arthritis is determined partly by genes and partly by factors such as smoking and drinking, which may either induce or prevent the disease. There is powerful evidence that smoking increases the risk of the disease, which is further increased in people with a certain genetic make-up.
The findings, published in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, reinforce the importance of lifestyle in development of the disease, the researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm say. They point to a recent study in which arthritis in mice was reduced by alcohol but admit they do not know how the protective effect is achieved.
Professor Robert Moots of the Arthritis Research Campaign said: "There is no doubt drinking too much is very bad for our health in many ways and these risks far outweigh any potential benefit for reducing the risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Alcohol in excess can be especially dangerous in patients taking some anti-rheumatoid drugs."