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Women who drink alcohol in moderation may protect against rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis


(CBS News) Two new studies show a bit of alcohol each week might just stave off two painful conditions some women face: rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis.

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The first of the studies, from the July 10 issue of the British Medical Journal, looked at more than 34,000 older Swedish women who were born between 1914 and 1948. Researchers collected data on the women's drinking habits twice during the study, once in 1987 and 1997, and then followed up with them through 2009 when their ages ranged from 54 to 89 years old.

Throughout the study, about 200 of the women developed rheumatoid arthritis. Further analysis revealed that women who drank more than three glasses of alcohol per week were 52 percent less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis, compared with women who said they drank no alcohol.

The risk reduction was the same whether women were drinking beer, wine or liquor.

"This study adds more fuel to the fire regarding the beneficial effects of alcohol," Dr. Martin Jan Bergman, a clinical associate professor of medicine at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, told HealthDay.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body's immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, causing inflammation around the joints and surrounding tissues, according to the National Institutes of Health. That can result in pain, stiffness, fatigue or eventually affect other organs and cause symptoms such as chest pain, eye burning or itching, sleep difficulties or numbness and tingling.

The researchers think the protective effect is explained by alcohol's ability to lower the body's immune system response.

The other study, published in the July 11 issue of the journal Menopause found women who drank one or two drinks each day, several times a week, were less likely to experience bone loss.

Bones are constantly remodeled as old bone is removed and replaced, and in the case of people with oseteoporosis, more bone is lost than reformed, resulting in weaker porous bones. According to the Oregon State University researchers behind the study, 80 percent of people with osteoporosis are women. They're especially at risk after menopause because of a decrease in the hormone estrogen which helps balance bone remodeling.

The researchers looked at 40 early postmenopausal women who regularly had one or two drinks each day but weren't on hormone replacement therapies and had no history or osteoporosis bone fractures.

Participants were asked to stop drinking for two weeks, and the researchers saw evidence of more bone turnover, which is a risk factor for osteoporosis. But the researchers were surprised to see that when the subjects resumed their normal drinking habits, the bone turnover rates returned to previous levels - within less than a day.

"Drinking moderately as part of a healthy lifestyle that includes a good diet and exercise may be beneficial for bone health, especially in postmenopausal women," study author Dr. Urszula Iwaniec, associate professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at OSU, said in a press release. "After less than 24 hours to see such a measurable effect was really unexpected."

However, Iwaniec warned to WebMD that the key here is the women drank moderately.

"Excessive drinking is bad for your bones," she said.

Other studies have tied moderate drinking to health benefits in women, including a reduced risk for stroke and a better likelihood for "successful aging" with fewer chronic diseases or mental and physical problems.

Binge drinking - having four or five drinks in a about two hours - raises the risk for health problems such as high blood pressure, liver disease, alcohol poisonings, STDs or violent or unintentional injuries.

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