Over the years, a steady stream of literature has been welcomed by individuals who occasionally enjoy a few drinks: moderate drinking could actually safeguard you from heart attacks by keeping blood vessels clear and relatively free from plaque. There is however other data that proves that too much alcohol will start poisoning the heart. The trick is to determine where the line between the two scenarios lies.
Dr. Scott Solomon, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of non-invasive cardiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, led a team that provided various clues. The study findings were published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging. The researchers sifted through alcohol consumption data obtained from 4,466 elderly people. Each participant also underwent an echocardiogram of their heart. Solomon wanted to determine how the structure of the heart changed over time and if this could be correlated to how much the volunteers drank per week.
The study results demonstrated that the more alcohol was consumed, the bigger the likelihood was that both the heart function and structure would undergo abnormal changes. The changes started accumulating in men after more than two drinks were consumed per day, with their heart’s pumping chambers enlarging slightly.
This indicates that the heart has to work harder at pumping blood, causing it to weaken and enlarge. In women, these changes occurred much sooner, after anything more than one drink of alcohol per day was consumed. The scientists also found that in women who drank more than one drink per day, the heart function dropped slightly.
Solomon noted that although a small amount of alcohol might be beneficial, excess consumption of alcohol will be toxic. When men drink more than two drinks per day, some indications of cardio toxic effects on the heart will appear. These could lead to problems in the long term. The threshold could be even lower for women.
The research provided valuable information on how the heart is affected by alcohol, and what level of alcohol exposure could trigger a change in both the heart’s function and its structure. It is however not clear where the balance lies between the harms and benefits of a having a few drinks, as this will differ for each individual.
More studies need to be done to investigate the genetic factors that might predispose people, specifically women, to alcohol’s toxic effects. Those studies could evaluate the possible differences in how women and men process alcohol. The effects witnessed by Solomon’s team stayed strong even after body mass index adjustments were made. Other studies indicate that hormonal differences between women and men could possibly be a reason why women’s heart tissue is more vulnerable to alcohol’s toxic effects.
As Solomon’s study participants had an average age of 76, the changes in their hearts were a result of decades of alcohol exposure. It is however not clear if there is a starting point for when the harmful effects override the potentially beneficial ones. Solomon concluded that it is clear that at more than two drinks per day for men, and less than that for women, the safe level has been reached.