PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am

Why close to 45,000 distance runners opted to shiver in their running shorts by the Tsim Sha Tsui clock tower at 5am today - assuming all went according to plan - when they could have been snuggling under a warm duvet reading this column is beyond me. These intrepid athletes braved runner's knee, foot fractures and shin splints for sound cardio health. It would have been much easier to pour a glass of wine instead.

'Red wine is indeed good for your health,' says cardiothoracic specialist Dr Michael Hsin. Wine drinkers are not only healthier than non-wine drinkers, but smarter and psychologically more stable - at least according to a 2001 study by Denmark's Institute of Preventive Medicine.

The link between wine and good health is so well-established that the International Symposium on Cardiovascular and Neurovascular Medicine, which starts on Friday in Hong Kong, includes an hour-long 'wine-tasting symposium', during which coronary heart disease will be discussed.

Even the staid US government woke up to the health benefits of wine - once the financial impact was made clear. According to a study published last autumn in Health Care Financing Review (a US Department of Health and Human Services journal), 'seniors who drink moderate amounts of wine - six to 13 glasses a week - are likely to have lower Medicare expenses than non-drinkers'. (Note: that's per week, not per evening.) How consumers on Medicare are to fund their weekly intake of Lafite and Latour isn't discussed in the study.

The good news about wine's health benefits rolls in regularly. A State University of New York at Stony Brook study claims drinking three glasses of red wine a day cuts the risk of colorectal cancers by 68 per cent. And scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health say men with hypertension are 30 per cent less likely to have a heart attack if they drink one or two glasses of wine a day.

The primary reason for wine's health benefits is its source material. Grape skins are loaded with phenolic compounds called flavonoids, as well as other antioxidants. These compounds appear to inhibit the formation of blood clots and reduce the artery-clogging propensities of low-density lipids (LDL), or 'bad' cholesterol. Also found in grape skins is a chemical called resveratrol, which seems to inhibit tumour development in numerous cancers. Red wines are considered healthier than white wines due to their extended maceration with grape skins.

But why not grab a handful of grapes or a cup of grape juice? In juice, the healthy phenolic compounds are largely degraded due to their exposure to oxygen, whereas wine delivers the flavonoids and antioxidants in a preserved state. Fresh grapes and other fruits deliver similar health benefits but it is difficult to consume them in sufficient quantities to make an impact.

Hardly a week goes by without alarming announcements that Asia is facing a cardiovascular-disease epidemic due to the rise in obesity, high blood pressure and smoking. These studies are not based on isolated incidents; findings by the Asia-Pacific Cohort Studies Collaboration were based on 600,000 people involved in 43 studies in nine Asian countries.

Take heart. According to a 40-year study of 1,373 subjects living in the Dutch town of Zutphen, men who drink at least half a glass of wine a day live an average of four years longer than teetotallers. Based on last night's consumption, most of my friends should live well into the 2090s - unless they have thrown their knees out during the Hong Kong Marathon.