Just half a glass of wine or a bottle of beer a day raises risk of atrial fibrillation

SOPHIA ANTIPOLIS, France — Studies have argued the benefits of having a small drink each day, especially for older adults. A new report however, finds that logic just doesn’t work when it comes to heart health. Researchers with the European Society of Cardiology say just half a glass of wine or a small bottle of beer every day increases the risk of a life threatening irregular heartbeat.

Atrial fibrillation (AF or AFib) is a common condition that often causes an abnormally fast pulse. Debilitating symptoms include chronic breathlessness, dizziness, and the inability to carry out simple chores. If left untreated, the condition can trigger a heart attack or stroke.

A study of almost 108,000 people discovered people who indulge in a single daily beverage are 16 percent more likely to develop AFib. The risk soared by 28 percent for those having two daily drinks and 47 percent for people having more than four drinks.

“To our knowledge, this is the largest study on alcohol consumption and long-term incidence of atrial fibrillation in the community,” lead author Professor Renate Schnabel says in a media release.

“Previous studies have not had enough power to examine this question, although they have been able to show a relationship between alcohol intake and other heart and blood vessel problems, such as heart attack and heart failure. In our study, we can now demonstrate that even very low regular alcohol consumption may increase the risk of atrial fibrillation.”

Is any amount of alcohol safe?

The study, published in the European Heart Journal, adds to growing evidence that there is no safe level of drinking. It may even lead to a rethink on official health guidance.

“These findings are important as the regular consumption of alcohol, the ‘one glass of wine a day’ to protect the heart, as is often recommended for instance in the lay press, should probably no longer be suggested without balancing risks and possible benefits for all heart and blood vessel diseases, including atrial fibrillation,” adds Prof. Schnabel, a consultant cardiologist at the University Heart and Vascular Centre-Hamburg.

Schnabel’s team pooled data from five community based studies in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Italy. One drink was equivalent to a small (120 ml) glass of wine, a small beer (330 ml), or a shot of spirits (40 ml).

Heavy drinkers are known to be more prone to heart failure, which in turn can trigger AFib. However, previous research has shown the risk actually rises slightly for people who never drink compared to modest consumers. That risk then rises sharply for people downing more alcohol. Researchers say low doses of alcohol are indeed linked to a lower risk of heart failure, but not AFib. This suggests the latter is not being caused by the former.

What can trigger AFib?

Volunteers in the study ranged in age from 24 to 97, with an average participant around 48 years-old. Each person underwent a series of examinations between 1982 and 2010. They also provided information on their medical histories, lifestyles, alcohol and tobacco use, employment, and education levels.

During the average follow-up period of roughly 14 years, almost 6,000 developed atrial fibrillation. The associations with drinking remained similar across all types of alcohol consumed and across gender. The exact cause of this link remains unknown.

Study authors say binge drinking can set off temporary rhythm problems, a phenomenon doctors call “holiday heart syndrome” since it tends to occur when people are off work. Small amounts of alcohol have also set off episodes in patients who have already been diagnosed with AFib.

Is going dry the best option?

Dr. Jorge Wong and Prof. David Conen, who were not involved in the study, say the report sheds new light on the connection between alcohol and irregular heart rhythms — particularly at the lower end of the drinking spectrum.

“A significant relationship between alcohol and AF was identified, and even small quantities of alcohol were associated with an increased, albeit small, risk of incident AF,” the epidemiologists at McMaster University say.

“Together with a recent randomized trial showing that a reduction in alcohol intake led to a reduction in AF recurrence, these data suggest that lowering alcohol consumption may be important for both prevention and management of AF. Importantly, any reduction in low-to-moderate alcohol consumption to potentially prevent AF needs to be balanced with the potentially beneficial association low amounts of alcohol may have with respect to other cardiovascular outcomes… The net clinical benefit of consuming low amounts of alcohol requires further study, ideally in adequately powered randomized trials. Until then, each individual has to make its own best educated decision as to whether consuming up to one alcoholic drink per day is worthwhile and safe.”

Patients with atrial fibrillation are at increased risk of stroke as it can trigger clots that cut off blood supply to the brain. They are normally put on blood-thinning drugs such as warfarin.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 12 million people in the United States will have AFib by the year 2030. The CDC adds 175,326 death certificates mentioned AFib in 2018, with the condition being the underlying cause in 25,845 of those fatalities.

SWNS reporter Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.