Should you raise a glass “to your health”—and if so, is red wine best? What we know now…

Pros vs. cons. Consuming moderate amounts of alcohol may lower a woman’s risk for heart disease by 20% to 40%, primarily by raising HDL “good” cholesterol, reducing clotting and decreasing inflammation. But: Drinking increases the risk for cancers of the breast, larynx and digestive tract and for hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke. What tips the scale: For women below age 50, who are more likely to get breast cancer than heart disease, alcohol carries a net risk. For women in their 50s and beyond, who are at higher risk for heart disease than for breast cancer, there may be a net benefit to drinking alcohol in moderation.

Red wine and resveratrol. Some research suggests that red wine delivers greater health benefits than other alcoholic beverages—possibly due to its high levels of antioxidants called polyphenols. In studies with mice, the polyphenol resveratrol extended life span and slowed signs of aging by turning on normally inactive longevity and vitality genes called sirtuins. However, you would need to consume 1,000 bottles of red wine per day to get a resveratrol dose equal to the amount tested in mice! What’s more, other studies suggest that health benefits derive from alcohol itself, not from red wine specifically. My opinion: If you do drink, choose whichever type of beverage you prefer.

Heavy metal warning. A recent study found potentially toxic levels of heavy metals in some wines. Heavy metals have been linked to cancer and neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease. Though more research is needed, it may be prudent to limit consumption of wines from Austria, Eastern Europe, France, Germany, Greece, Portugal and Spain. Wines from Argentina, Brazil and Italy were found to have safe levels of heavy metals. No US wines were studied.

What moderation means. Due to metabolic differences, women generally can tolerate only half as much alcohol as men before becoming intoxicated. Moderate drinking for women means no more than one drink — five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of liquor—per day. But: Even this amount can boost cancer risk, so I recommend a limit of one drink three to four times per week or half a drink per day.

The case for abstinence. If you don’t drink, there’s no reason to start. There are safer ways— exercising, watching your weight, eating healthfully, not smoking — to protect your heart. Avoid alcohol if you have a personal or family history of alcoholism or a type of cancer linked to alcohol… have liver disease or ulcers… take a blood thinner, such as warfarin (Coumadin)… or are pregnant.