Drinking Till Your Heart’s Content

two older men drinking alcohol

Long-term alcohol consumption can simultaneously protect and damage your heart.

This is the conclusion of a recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. This study examined the effects of long-term alcohol use on the heart. The researchers examined the heart health of patients admitted to hospitals based on whether or not the local county allowed alcohol sales. They found that counties that allowed alcohol sales had fewer patients admitted to hospitals for heart attack and heart failure. In contrast, in these same counties with fewer admissions for heart attack and heart failure, more patients had an irregular heartbeat, known as atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is a risk factor for stroke.

How can this be? Researchers suggest that the ways alcohol protects and damages the heart occur through different mechanisms. To better understand some of these mechanisms, the research team followed 5,000 participants over a ten year period, tracking the development of atrial fibrillation and enlargement of the left atrium. The participants reported their alcohol intake, with an average of about one drink per day. The researchers found that for each extra drink per day reported, the risk of atrial fibrillation increased by 5% and the size of the left atrium also increased. An enlarged left atrium can change the way blood flows into the left ventricle and is pumped to the rest of the body. Over time, this may eventually weaken the heart, and result in other heart issues. This is one way alcohol damages the heart.

How can alcohol protect the heart? The protective benefits of alcohol have been shown to begin 24 hours after drinking a moderate amount of alcohol, defined as drinking no more than 4 drinks per day for men and 3 drinks per day for women. Moderate alcohol consumption decreased the risk of heart attack and stroke by 30%. Other protective benefits of alcohol include:

  • Increased levels of high-density lipoprotein, the “good” cholesterol
  • Fewer blood clots because alcohol prevents blood clotting
  • Reduced inflammation, which can lower your risk of heart attack and stroke

What does this mean? First, the effects of alcohol on the heart are complicated. If you enjoy drinking alcohol every now and then, go ahead and indulge—in moderation. If you’re not a fan of alcohol, there is little evidence that starting to drink is the best way to protect your heart.

Remember that limiting alcohol intake is just one part of a heart-healthy lifestyle. Consult your doctor about alcohol and your specific medical condition.

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