Vitality

Drinking Alcohol Moderately May Reduce Risk Of Heart Failure; Might Be More Beneficial Than Not Drinking At All

Alcohol
A new study finds that moderate drinking might have a protective effect on the heart. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

It’s no secret that drinking alcohol excessively harms our bodies, damaging the liver and heart, and increasing our risk of cancer and alcohol-related injuries like car crashes. It’s for these reasons drinking in moderation is stressed so much. But drinking responsibly won’t only get you a buzz and reduce your risk of harm, it might also it might also have a protective effect on the heart, a new study finds.

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found in their study that moderate alcohol consumption, defined as seven drinks per week, was associated with a 20 percent lower risk of heart failure in men and a 16 percent lower risk in women, when compared to people who didn’t drink at all.

“These findings suggest that drinking alcohol in moderation does not contribute to an increased risk of heart failure and may even be protective,” said study author Dr. Scott Solomon, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and senior physician at Brigham and Women’s, in a press release. “No level of alcohol intake was associated with a higher risk of heart failure. However, heavy alcohol  use is certainly a risk factor for deaths from any cause.”

Excessive drinking begins to weaken the heart muscles over time. This leads to problems in the way blood flows through the body, and changes the very shape of the heart muscle as it stretches and becomes thin — this condition is called cardiomyopathy. Eventually, it leads to a complete breakdown of the heart’s ability to keep up with the body’s needs, and the heart fails — symptoms of this include shortness of breath, wheezing, edema, fatigue, and nausea.  

For the study, the researchers looked at data on 14,629 people aged 45 to 64 who were participating in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study from 1987 to 1989. The researchers followed these participants until 2011, and interviewed them at the beginning and during three follow-up visits about their drinking habits. Each drink was defined as either one small glass of wine (about 125 milliliters), about 12 ounces of beer, or a little less than a shot of vodka or whisky.  

After looking at rates of heart failure among the participants, the researchers found those who drank moderately, or about seven drinks per week, were least likely to have it. In men, moderate drinking was found to reduce risk of heart failure by 20 percent when compared to those who abstained from drinking. Women who drank moderately were 16 percent less likely to develop heart failure. Former drinkers, however, were the most likely to develop heart failure, with a 19 and 17 percent higher risk among men and women, respectively, when compared to abstainers. These findings held even after accounting for things like diabetes, smoking, age, and blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

"The people who were classified as former drinkers at the start of the study had a higher risk of developing heart failure and of death from any cause when compared with abstainers,” Solomon said. “This could be related to the reasons why they had stopped drinking in the first place, for instance because they had already developed health problems that might have made them more likely to go on to develop heart failure."

Other studies have also found moderate alcohol consumption might reduce risk of heart failure. One from last year, for example, found women who had one drink per day and men who had two per day were 13 percent less likely to experience a heart attack. It’s possible these benefits come from the antioxidants found in both wine and beer, for example. Red wine is rich in heart-healthy resveratrol, which is derived from the skin of red grapes, while beer is rich in polyphenols — a type of antioxidant compound — derived from hops and the fermentation process.

Solomon warned that while these findings suggest drinking moderately will lower your risk of heart failure, they don’t prove causality. In other words, drinking responsibly won’t guarantee you’ll live without heart failure.

Source: Solomon S, Gonçalves A, et al. Alcohol consumption and risk of heart failure: the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study. European Heart Journal. 2015. 

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