Study: Alcohol Abuse Related to Increased Risk Of 3 Heart Conditions
According to a new study from the University of California, people who abuse alcohol may be a greater risk for heart conditions such as atrial fibrillation, heart attack, and congestive heart failure. In fact, this increased risk is roughly the same as that of hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and tobacco smoking.
These findings, which were published this week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, may be used further educate others on the risks of heavy drinking. Indeed, heart disease is the #1 killer of men and women in the U.S.
Dr. Gregory M. Marcus, M.D., lead researcher and director of clinical research in the Division of Cardiology at the University of California, San Francisco, stated the following in an American College of Cardiology news release:
“We found that even if you have no underlying risk factors, abuse of alcohol still increases the risk of these heart conditions.”
About The Study
For the study, researchers examined nearly 15 million California residents age 21+ who had undergone outpatient surgery, emergency room treatment, or had been hospitalized between 2005-2009.
Of these, 1.8 percent (around 268,000) had been diagnosed with alcohol abuse.
After statistics were adjusted to eliminate other risk factors, they found that patients who abuse alcohol were 2.3 times as likely to have congestive failure than non-alcohol abusers. In addition, they were two times as likely to have atrial fibrillation, and 1.4 times more likely to have a heart attack.
To be fair, the study does not directly prove that alcohol caused the increased risk. But there is likely a close correlation. Unfortunately, there is no way to know how alcohol persons in the study drank, either individually, or on average.
Still, if directly correlated, these findings indicate that eliminating alcohol abuse could result in about 73,000 fewer atrial fibrillation cases, 34,000 fewer heart attacks, and 91,000 fewer congestive heart failure patients in the United States.
“We were somewhat surprised to find those diagnosed with some form of alcohol abuse were at significantly higher risk of a heart attack.”
“We hope this data will temper the enthusiasm for drinking in excess and will avoid any justification for excessive drinking because people think it will be good for their heart. These data pretty clearly prove the opposite.”
Marcus noted that these findings were based on actual alcohol abuse documented diagnoses, rather than patient self-reports, which have been common in the past. Self-reports can be unreliable, especially in cases where the patient is a heavy drinker.
In the past, research has found that moderate levels of alcohol consumption could perhaps prevent heart attack and heart failure, although even low levels of alcohol consumption increased the risk for atrial fibrillation.
However, according to an accompanying editorial by Michael H. Criqui, M.D., M.P.H., of the University of California San Diego, those studies were cohort studies, which included a defined population. Moreover, such studies tend to recruit cooperative and health-conscious participants who are more likely engaging in a healthy lifestyle.
“Cohort studies have minimal participation by true alcohol abusers, so the current study likely presents a more valid picture of heavy drinking outcomes.”
The Risk For Other Health Problems
In addition to heart conditions, alcohol abusers are an increased risk of anemia, which is characterized by abnormally low red blood cells. Symptoms include fatigue, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath.
Heavy drinkers also have increased risk of many cancers, due to the continued presence of acetaldehyde, a potent carcinogen that the body converts from alcohol. Cancers linked to alcohol abuse include the mouth, throat larynx, esophagus, liver, breast, and colorectal region.
The risk of liver cirrhosis occurs because alcohol is toxic to liver cells. Over time, the liver can become increasingly scarred, rendering it less able to function.
Heavy drinking also speeds up the rate at which the human brain shrinks as we age. This can result in memory loss and symptoms of dementia. It can also damage the brain’s capacity for executive function, including decision making and problem solving.
Drinking can cause or exacerbate depression. While many drinkers may begin as a means to self-medicate, alcohol actually makes depression and other illnesses worse. And at least one study from New Zealand found that heavy drinking directly leads to depression – and not necessarily the other way around.
Alcohol abuse can interrupt the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which controls the constriction and dilation of blood vessels as they respond to the stress, exertion, etc. Heavy drinking can cause blood pressure to rise, and over time, this effect can become chronic in the form of hypertension.
Drinking can inflame both the stomach and the pancreas. Chronic pancreas inflammation, or pancreatiti,s impairs the digestive process, and can result in severe abdominal pain and diarrhea. Alcohol is believed responsible for more than half the cases of pancreatitis.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology