A new study debunks the concept that drinking modestly protects the heart. Instead, its conclusion is that there is no level of drinking that does not present heart disease risk. The risk is minimal if people consume an average of seven drinks per week (as compared to abstaining). But the risk rises dramatically as the level of alcohol consumption rises.
The study, conducted by JAMA Network Open, analyzed the genes and medical data of 400,000 people, average age 57, who participate in the U.K. Biobank, a biomedical database that is accessed globally for public health research. Participants drank an average of 9.2 drinks per week. Past studies have reported that moderate drinking protects the heart, because moderate drinkers as a group have less heart disease. But the JAMA study found that moderate drinkers (up to 14 drinks a week) tend to have other characteristics that decrease heart disease risk. For example, smoking less and exercising more. Hence the connection between drinking and heart disease is mitigated by behavior.
“The investigators’ statistical analysis showed an exponential curve of risk with the gene variants that suggest they drink more. The risks of heart disease and high blood pressure started slowly as the number of drinks increased, but they quickly gained steam, soaring as people got into the abusive drinking range of 21 or more drinks a week.” The New York Times
Using the Mendelian randomization method, the study did not ask why people drank or abstained. Instead, it looked at the effects of alcohol on the heart from the standpoint of genetics, behaviors, and characteristics. The study found that risk of heart disease increases with other conditions like diabetes or obesity.
Dr. Aragam (author of the study) said, “Extrapolating from the results of the study, a typical middle-aged person in the study who did not drink had an estimated 9 percent chance of having coronary heart disease. A person who had one drink a day had an estimated 10.5 percent chance, which is small. After that, though, the risk increases quickly.” The New York Times
The Pandemic, Alcohol and Heart Disease
Researchers reported that there was an increase in drinking during the pandemic. And a recent report found that the number of alcohol-related deaths increased by 25 percent in 2020 over 2019. Of note, blood pressure also increased during the pandemic. The Circulation study cites multifactorial reasons for the rise including “increased alcohol consumption, less physical activity, emotional stress, and less ongoing medical care (including reduced medication adherence).