Light alcohol drinking cannot benefit your heart health, MIT and Harvard study finds

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A new study from MIT and Harvard found that alcohol intake at all levels was linked to higher risks of heart disease.

The study was published in JAMA Network Open and was conducted by Krishna G. Aragam et al.

The findings suggest that the supposed benefits of alcohol drinking may actually be attributed to other lifestyle factors that are common among light to moderate drinkers.

In the study, the team examined 371,463 adults—with an average age of 57 years and an average alcohol consumption of 9.2 drinks per week

Consistent with earlier studies, the team found that light to moderate drinkers had the lowest heart disease risk, followed by people who abstained from drinking. People who drank heavily had the highest risk.

However, the team also found that light to moderate drinkers tended to have healthier lifestyles than abstainers—such as more physical activity and vegetable intake, and less smoking.

Taking just a few lifestyle factors into account strongly lowered any benefit associated with alcohol consumption.

The study also applied the latest techniques in a method called Mendelian randomization, which uses genetic variants to determine whether an observed link between an exposure and an outcome is consistent with a causal effect—in this case, whether light alcohol consumption causes a person to be protected against cardiovascular disease.

The team found that people with genetic variants that predicted higher alcohol consumption were indeed more likely to consume greater amounts of alcohol, and more likely to have hypertension and coronary artery disease.

The analyses also found big differences in heart risk across the spectrum of alcohol consumption among both men and women, with minimal increases in risk when going from zero to seven drinks per week, much higher risk increases when progressing from seven to 14 drinks per week, and especially high risk when consuming 21 or more drinks per week.

Notably, the findings suggest a rise in heart risk even at levels deemed “low risk” by national guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (i.e. below two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women).

The discovery was supported by an additional analysis of data on 30,716 participants in the Mass General Brigham Biobank.

Therefore, while cutting back on consumption can benefit even people who drink one alcoholic beverage per day, the health gains of cutting back may be more substantial—and, perhaps, more clinically meaningful—in those who consume more.

The team says the findings affirm that alcohol intake should not be recommended to improve cardiovascular health.

Rather, reducing alcohol intake will likely reduce cardiovascular risk in all individuals, albeit to different extents, based on one’s current level of consumption.

Previous research has shown that drinking alcohol may raise death risk in people with abnormal heart rhythms.

In a study by Griffin Memorial Hospital, researchers found when patients under age 54 were hospitalized with abnormal heart rhythms, those who abused alcohol were 72% more likely to die before being discharged.

Alcohol abuse has harmful effects on physical health, leading to more illness and death in patients with heart problems.

Arrhythmias are conditions in which the heart beats too slowly, too quickly or erratically.

Underlying heart problems can result in arrhythmia when electrical impulses are unable to move through the heart properly to generate a steady beat. Excessive alcohol use is known to promote the development of arrhythmia.

In that study, the researchers reviewed deaths among almost 115,000 patients (ages 15 to 54) hospitalized for arrhythmia between 2010 and 2014.

Nearly one in 10 of the patients was also diagnosed with alcohol abuse in this study, defined as drinking that causes problems at home, work, or school, whether or not the person is considered physically dependent on alcohol.

The researchers found arrhythmia patients were more likely to die in the hospital if they had clogged arteries, diabetes or were aged 45-54 rather than being a younger adult; and

patients hospitalized with abnormal heart rhythms were 72% more likely to die of any cause before discharge if they also were diagnosed with alcohol abuse or dependence.

The team says doctors should educate patients with alcohol problems about their risk of hospitalization for arrhythmia and their increased risk of death.

Integrated care models need to be developed to formulate strategies to counter problematic alcohol use and improve the health-related quality of life of patients.

Results of this study on adults aged 54 and younger, who are the most likely to have substance abuse problems, may not be generalizable to older adults.

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