Most health care professionals have the same response when it comes to alcohol and our health: If you’re going to drink, do so in moderation. Now it seems moderate drinking isn’t the solution to healthy alcohol consumption either. We can never win. A recent study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging has found that even moderate drinking among elderly people can lead to heart damage.

"Women appear more susceptible than men to the cardiotoxic effects of alcohol, which might potentially contribute to a higher risk of alcoholic cardiomyopathy, for any given level of alcohol intake," Dr. Scott Solomon, senior author of the study and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of noninvasive cardiology at Brigham and Women's in Boston, said in a statement.

Soloman and his colleagues compared weekly alcohol consumption among 4,466 people at an average age of 76 to the size, structure, and motion of the heart. The research team referenced previous studies showing that light to moderate alcohol consumption can actually protect against heart disease, while heavy drinking is often associated with the heart muscle becoming larger, thicker, and more rigid, also known as cardiomyopathy. Subtle changes to the heart’s structure and function became more pronounced as the person drank more.

The researchers did end up noticing some distinctions between the effect alcohol consumption had on the hearts of elderly women and men. Men who reported drinking more than 14 alcoholic beverages weekly — defined as heavy drinking — experienced an enlargement of the wall of the heart’s main pumping chamber, also known as the left ventricular mass. Women who consumed alcohol moderately — defined as two more drinks a day — still suffered minor reduction in heart function.

"In spite of potential benefits of low alcohol intake, our findings highlight the possible hazards to cardiac structure and function by increased amounts of alcohol consumption in the elderly, particularly among women. This reinforces the U.S. recommendations stating that those who drink should do so with moderation," said Dr. Alexandra Gonçalves, lead author of the study and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Brigham and Women's in Boston.

According to the American Heart Association, alcohol intake should be limited to one drink a day for women and up to two for men. Consuming too much alcohol can raise the levels of triglycerides found in our blood. Increased intake of alcohol often leads to various health concerns that can directly impact heart health, including high blood pressure, obesity, and stroke. Heavy drinkers who cut back on their alcohol consumption also reduce their risk for stroke.

Source: Rosamond W, Fuchs F, Soloman S, et al. Relationship Between Alcohol Consumption and Cardiac Structure and Function in the Elderly: The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study. Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging. 2015.