February is American Heart Month. Should We Raise a Toast?

"A second glass of wine? Sure, it's good for my heart!" Is this social drinker right about that?

Waiter Serving Wine To Senior Couple In Restaurant

While most of us know that drinking too much alcohol is unhealthy, many social drinkers these days enjoy a glass of wine or cocktail all the more, having read news coverage of studies showing moderate drinking benefits the heart.

However, two recent studies published by the American College of Cardiology (ACC) offer reasons we might want to rethink that second glass of wine—and in some cases, maybe even the first one.

In the first study, published in the January 2017 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco examined the effects of alcohol abuse on three heart conditions: heart attack, congestive heart failure, and atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat). The research team found that consuming more than a moderate amount of alcohol actually raises the risk of these three conditions—to the same degree as do high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and obesity!

The team noted that while moderate consumption of alcohol might lower the risk of heart attack and congestive heart failure, drinking too much completely wipes out that advantage. (Moderate drinking is defined by the American Heart Association as two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.) Said Dr. Gregory Marcus, who is clinical director of the UCSF Division of Cardiology, “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 also noted that when it comes to atrial fibrillation (also known as irregular heartbeat, when the heart beats too fast, too slow or with an irregular rhythm), not only moderate but even low levels of alcohol consumption increase the risk.

This finding is underscored by a second study, released a month earlier in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Researchers from the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Australia concur that light to moderate alcohol consumption can in some cases reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. But they also agree that the opposite is true with atrial fibrillation. Said the study’s lead author, Prof. Peter Kistler, “There has been a lot of attention in recent years about the benefits of drinking small amounts of alcohol for the heart. The results are significant, since chances are, there are people who are consuming one to two glasses of alcohol per day that may not realize they are putting themselves at risk for irregular heartbeat.” Explained Kistler, “While moderate amounts of alcohol appear protective for the ‘plumbing’ or blood supply to the heart muscle, the benefits of alcohol do not extend to the electrical parts of the heart or heartbeat.”

The team explained that alcohol contributes to irregular heartbeat in several ways, causing changes in both the cells and the electrical signals of the heart, and in the autonomic nervous system, that controls our heart rate.

Should people who experience irregular heartbeat give up alcohol entirely? They should at the least cut back. Prof. Kistler said, “Even though we do not have randomized data that tells us what a ‘safe’ amount is to consume, people with an irregular heartbeat should probably drink no more than one alcoholic drink per day, with two alcohol free days a week.”

It’s also important to remember that alcohol abuse can worsen many other health conditions, including diabetes, liver problems and osteoporosis. It raises the risk of several cancers. It’s a major fall risk. And it can also be hazardous to a person’s relationships.

If you are reconsidering the amount of alcohol you consume, talk to your doctor. And if you are worried about the drinking of an older loved one, encourage them to do the same.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2017.