The beverage of choice in many cultures, tea has long been touted as having various healing properties. Now new research suggests that in the case of heart disease, that may well be true. According to study results published online yesterday in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, heart attack patients who drank tea regularly had significantly elevated survival rates as compared with those who didn't.

Surveying 1,900 heart attack survivors, Kenneth Mukamal of Harvard Medical School and his colleagues found that those who reported drinking the most tea were the least likely to die during follow-up. More than half of the patients had not consumed any tea in the year leading up to their heart attack; 615 were moderate drinkers (fewer than 14 cups a week); and 266 were heavy users, imbibing on average 19 cups a week. By the end of the study periodroughly three and a half years later313 individuals had died. All told, moderate drinkers exhibited a 28 percent lower death rate than nondrinkers, whereas heavy drinkers had a 44 percent lower death rateregardless of differences in age, gender, and clinical and lifestyle factors.

The team suspects that antioxidants known as flavonoids, which are abundant in green and black teas, may explain the link between tea consumption and survival. Previous research has shown that flavonoids can prevent the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein, and that they can enhance the blood vessels' ability to relax in patients with cardiac disease. Furthermore, test-tube studies indicate that flavonoids may have an anticlotting effect.

The researchers acknowledge that with little information about their patients' dietary habits to go on, the results of their study are limited. Thus, although the current findings strongly suggest that drinking tea lowers risk of death after a heart attack, Mukamal says, the link needs to be evaluated in controlled clinical studies.