Moderate consumption of wine — measured in glasses, not bottles — may lower the risk of heart disease and cancer among men.

A study of more than 35,000 French men over 28 years found a 40-percent lowered incidence of cardiovascular disease as well as a 20-percent reduction in lung, lip, oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, bladder, and rectal cancers. The benefits appeared among men who mostly drank wine rather than beer or liquor, researchers from Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense and Bordeaux Segalen University reported this month at a meeting in Sydney, Australia.

All from eastern France, the men ranged in age from 40 to 65 at the beginning of the study. Nearly three decades later, researchers said 4,035 of them had died from cancer, though they did not release exact numbers for cardiovascular deaths.

At first blush, the work appears to support the much ballyhooed "French paradox," which describes the epidemiological observation of lowered heart disease among the French, despite a diet high relatively high in saturated fats. Assuming a heightened risk of coronary heart disease from saturated fats, wine must provide some protective quality.

Or the French paradox might be an illusion, as suggested by researchers in a 1999 study published in the British Medical Journal. "We propose that the difference is due to the time lag between increases in consumption of animal fat and serum cholesterol concentrations and the resulting increase in mortality from heart disease — similar to the recognized time lag between smoking and lung cancer," they wrote.

By the end of the millennium, deaths from ischemic heart disease among the French had yet to catch up with the British and the rest of the Western world, given a more recent conversion to diets high in animal fat and the attendant rise in serum cholesterol.

Others have also suggested discrepancies in health data reporting across countries might be accountable for the paradox.

Nearly a generation later, however, investigators are still debating the issue. A 2009 study of middle-aged men in the Netherlands also supported the "French paradox," suggesting that a half-glass of wine per day boosted life expectancy by five years among a group of randomly selected men followed for more than four decades. "Independent of total alcohol intake, long-term wine consumption of, on average, less than half a glass per day was strongly and inversely associated with coronary heart disease," researchers wrote.

As for the protective quality of wine, some research suggests resveratrol, a component of red wine, may improve the body's insulin sensitivity, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease — at least in men.

Sources: Streppel MT, Ocke MC, Boshuizen HC, Kok FJ, Kromhout D. Long-Term Wine Consumption Is Related To Cardiovascular Mortality And Life Expectancy Independently Of Moderate Alcohol Intake: The Zutphen Study. British Medical Journal. 2011.

Law M, Wald N. Why Heart Disease Mortality Is Low In France: The Time Lag Explanation. British Medical Journal. 1999.