Study found an association for middle-aged people, but experts stress that heavy drinking is never healthy
Having a drink each day might help lower a middle-aged person’s odds for heart failure, a new study reveals.
The investigation suggests that men in their 40s, 50s and 60s who drink as much as seven comparably sized glasses of wine, beer and/or spirits per week will see their risk for heart failure drop by 20 percent.
For women the associated drop in risk amounted to roughly 16 percent, according to the study published online Jan. 20 in the European Heart Journal.
“These findings suggest that drinking alcohol in moderation does not contribute to an increased risk of heart failure and may even be protective,” Dr. Scott Solomon, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, said in a journal news release.
While the study found an association between moderate drinking and a lower risk of heart failure, it wasn’t designed to prove cause-and-effect. And the findings shouldn’t be used as an excuse to booze it up, the researchers said.
“No level of alcohol intake was associated with a higher risk of heart failure [in the study],” said Solomon, who is also senior physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. But he stressed that “heavy alcohol use is certainly a risk factor for deaths from any cause.”
Another expert agreed that moderation is key.
“As we have seen in many studies, moderate alcohol use may be protective,” said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
“Although it would not be recommended as a ‘therapy’ to protect the heart, it is clear that if alcohol is part of one’s life, recommending moderate use is essential for cardiac protection, including the reduction of heart failure,” she said.
Heart failure occurs when cardiac muscle is no longer able to sufficiently pump blood. Over 23 million people around the world struggle with the health issue, which has a number of root causes, including prior heart attack, high blood pressure, heart disease, irregular heartbeat, drug use, chemotherapy, and high alcohol consumption.
For the purposes of the study, the investigators defined one drink as equaling 14 grams of alcohol — the equivalent of a small glass of wine, about a half-pint of beer, and somewhat less than a shot of spirits, such as whiskey or vodka.
Solomon’s team then tracked drinking patterns and heart failure rates for 14,600 men and women. All were between the ages of 45 and 64 when they first joined the study in the late 1980s.
The researchers followed the participants for the next 25 years, asking them periodically about the type and quantity of alcohol they routinely consumed.
Over time, just under 1,300 men and just over 1,200 women developed heart failure, the study authors said.
Compared with heavy drinkers or teetotalers, the lowest risk for heart failure was seen among moderate drinkers who consumed up to seven drinks per week, the study found.
The highest risk was for those who used to drink to some degree, but had stopped consuming alcohol during the study period.
Men and women in this group were found to have an 18 percent higher risk for heart failure on average when compared with participants who had never touched alcohol at all during the study period.
According to Solomon, that finding “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.”
On the other end of the scale, heavy drinkers — those who consumed 14 or more drinks per week — did not appear to face any more or less of a risk for heart failure than those who never drank at all. However, the study authors stressed that this finding may have been skewed by the relatively small number of heavy-drinking participants.
For more on alcohol and health, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
SOURCES: Suzanne Steinbaum, M.D., director, women and heart disease, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; European Heart Journal, news release, Jan. 19, 2015