‘To minimize the risk of alcohol causing harm to the heart, if you don’t drink, don’t start.’
MADRID, Spain — Is there any safe level of drinking when it comes to heart health? According to a new study, the answer appears to be no. Researchers have found that even alcohol consumption which health officials generally consider safe shows a link to the development of heart failure.
“This study adds to the body of evidence that a more cautious approach to alcohol consumption is needed,” says study author Dr. Bethany Wong of St. Vincent’s University Hospital in Dublin, Ireland, in a media release. “To minimize the risk of alcohol causing harm to the heart, if you don’t drink, don’t start. If you do drink, limit your weekly consumption to less than one bottle of wine or less than three-and-a-half 500 ml cans of 4.5% beer.”
While previous studies have found that long-term heavy drinking can lead to a form of heart failure called alcoholic cardiomyopathy, scientists have also discovered that lower amounts of drinking can also be harmful. Studies have found that this is especially true among Asian populations.
“As there are genetic and environmental differences between Asian and European populations this study investigated if there was a similar relationship between alcohol and cardiac changes in Europeans at risk of heart failure or with pre-heart failure,” Dr. Wong explains. “The mainstay of treatment for this group is management of risk factors such as alcohol, so knowledge about safe levels is crucial.”
How much alcohol is too much for the heart?
Researchers looked at data from a study including 744 adults over the age of 40 with an average age of 66.5. All of these individuals were either at risk for heart failure due to pre-existing conditions such as high blood pressure or obesity or had pre-heart failure, which means they have heart abnormalities but no symptoms.
The study excluded former drinkers and heart failure patients already experiencing symptoms of their condition. The team used echocardiography to measure the heart health of each participant over the next 5.4 years.
Dr. Wong’s team used the Irish definition of one standard drink, which equates to 10 grams of alcohol. Study authors then split up the participants into four groups based on their weekly alcohol consumption — none, low (less than seven drinks), moderate (7-14 drinks), and high (more than 14 drinks).
Researchers also separated the results for at-risk and pre-heart failure groups. Overall, 27 percent reported that they did not drink during the study. Meanwhile, 48 percent were low alcohol users and 25 percent reported either moderate or high alcohol usage over the five years.
Among the at-risk group, researchers defined worsening heart health as a progression of pre-heart failure readings or the development of symptomatic heart failure. For pre-heart failure participants, the team defined worsening heart health as a deterioration in the squeezing or relaxation of the heart muscle. The team also took several individual factors into account, such as age, gender, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and vascular disease.
In comparison to the no-alcohol group of pre-heart failure patients, drinkers in the moderate or high consumption groups saw their risk of worsening heart health increase by 4.5 times. In the at-risk group, however, the team did not find a link between moderate or high alcohol use and the progression of heart failure.
No benefits of drinking?
Moreover, the study did not find any protective effects of drinking alcohol. This differs it from previous reports, which have found a connection between drinking in moderation and benefits for both the heart and the brain.
“Our study suggests that drinking more than 70 g of alcohol per week is associated with worsening pre-heart failure or progression to symptomatic heart failure in Europeans. We did not observe any benefits of low alcohol usage. Our results indicate that countries should advocate lower limits of safe alcohol intake in pre-heart failure patients,” Dr. Wong concludes.
“In Ireland, for example, those at risk of heart failure or with pre-heart failure are advised to restrict weekly alcohol intake to 11 units for women and 17 units for men. This limit for men is more than twice the amount we found to be safe. More research is needed in Caucasian populations to align results and reduce the mixed messages that clinicians, patients and the public are currently getting.”
Dr. Wong presented the research at Heart Failure 2022, a scientific congress of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC).