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Moderate consumption of alcohol can stop, and maybe even reduce, the buildup of fat in arteries that is the leading cause of heart disease, according to a new study.

Researchers have long known that drinkers have markedly lower rates of heart disease, even when their diets are laden with fatty foods, a phenomenon dubbed the French paradox. The French tend to eat a high-cholesterol diet, but heart disease is far less prominent in France than in North America; this difference has been attributed to wine.

In today's edition of the medical journal Alcohol: Clinical and Experimental Research, a team of pathologists at the University of Illinois at Chicago is reporting that alcohol itself has protective properties.

Specifically, Dr. Eugene Emeson and his colleagues believe that alcohol may influence the body's production of cytokines, prompting an immune response that lessens the risk of arteries clogging. (Cytokines are hormone-like proteins that are referred to as the messengers of the immune system.)

"I think that alcohol may alter the balance of cytokines, which may tip the balance in favour of protection against atherosclerosis," Dr. Emeson said. "We may one day find there is a way of accomplishing this without using alcohol." That could lead to medications that can treat or prevent the accumulation of fatty streak lesions that clog arteries.

Coronary heart disease is the single biggest killer in the country, claiming at least 79,100 Canadians last year, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. The principal cause of heart disease is blocked coronary arteries -- the tiny vessels that nourish the heart's own muscle cells. Blockage can choke the blood supply to areas of the heart, resulting in tissue death, also known as a heart attack.

In their research, the University of Illinois team found that, in test animals, moderate amounts of alcohol in their diet reduced atherosclerotic lesions in the aorta and halted their progression if they had already formed.

"This helps explain the folklore that has been around for years that a shot or two of whiskey may be good for you," Dr. Emeson said. He was careful to say, however, that he is not advocating that everyone drink alcohol.

In an accompanying article in the journal, Dr. Sam Zakhari, director of research at the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said the study should be interpreted cautiously.

Because coronary heart disease is uncommon in men before the age of 35 and in women before the age of 50, younger people derive no benefit from drinking.

Furthermore, people taking medications -- in particular the elderly -- risk complications from interaction with alcohol that could more than offset any theoretical benefit.