Don’t let alcohol break your heart
If you’re under 40 and regularly drink alcohol, you may be at greater risk of developing a heart arrhythmia known as atrial fibrillation or AFib.
People in their 20s and 30s may think only older people get heart problems, but a recent large study in South Korea found moderate to heavy alcohol consumption on a regular basis correlates with a significant hike in the risk of AFib in young adults.
“In the mentality of younger people, health issues aren’t number one,” said Peter Chiotellis, MD, FACC, a cardiologist at Cape Cod Hospital’s Heart Center in Hyannis.
AFib describes when the heart’s two upper chambers quiver instead of pumping in a normal rhythm. Symptoms may include chest pain or palpitations, feeling dizzy or unwell, sweating, fatigue and shortness of breath, according to the American Heart Association.
While AFib is relatively uncommon among young adults, it’s known that consuming a lot of alcohol at one time can trigger an episode of AFib. Called “Holiday Heart Syndrome,” the arrhythmia usually fades with time. But regular heavy drinking can permanently damage the heart.
“If you look at emergency room cases of atrial fibrillation in younger adults, at least 30 to 60 percent are likely related to alcohol consumption,” Dr. Chiotellis said.
In the South Korean study, researchers used information from the National Health Insurance Service database, and examined records for more than 1.5 million people ages 20-39 over a four-year period of annual checkups. They placed those who consumed 7.5-15 alcoholic drinks (more than 105 grams of alcohol) a week in three groups from moderate to heavy drinkers; those who drank less or not at all formed the comparison group.
AFib was subsequently diagnosed in 3,066 subjects, or 0.2 percent of everyone in the study. Overall, those who drank regularly were 15 percent more likely to develop AFib. According to the American Heart Association, which published the study in its journal Circulation, subjects who drank heavily through all four years of the study had a 47 percent higher risk of AFib.
Alcohol can harm the heart in several ways, Dr. Chiotellis said. It can:
- Damage heart muscle cells, which could progress to cardiac myopathy – weakening of the heart.
- Cause your body’s magnesium levels to drop, leading to AFib.
- Increase risk of high blood pressure.
- Contribute to becoming overweight or obese, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
- Be a factor in developing sleep apnea, when breathing is partially or wholly blocked for short intervals during sleep. This can cause low blood oxygen, resulting in AFib or other arrhythmias, and sudden death during sleep.
The stress and loneliness many have experienced during the COVID pandemic has caused some people to lean on alcohol for comfort, but it’s a dangerous habit that can make things worse, Dr. Chiotellis said.
“Chronic alcohol use is a depressant,” he said. “It disrupts sleep patterns. You may feel it relaxes you, but over time it increases stress and anxiety.”
The federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend men not consume more than two alcoholic drinks a day, and women, not more than one. They define one drink as 12 ounces of 5 percent ABV beer, 8 ounces (a cup) of 7 percent malt liquor, 5 ounces of 12 percent ABV wine and 1.5 ounces of 40 percent ABV (80 proof) liquor. Dr. Chiotellis said that, in reality, people probably pour themselves larger or stiffer drinks.
“You have a glass of wine at home, you may be doubling it,” he said. “My advice is to stop daily drinking. I think it’s a stepladder to having two to three glasses of wine.”
The federal guidelines also note newer studies challenge the veracity of older studies that suggested moderate drinking may help protect against heart disease. They also state that staying within the recommended daily limits may still increase the chances of dying from various cancers and cardiovascular diseases.
Dr. Chiotellis also urged adults to build healthy habits while they’re young, such as exercising regularly.
“If you can take 30 minutes out of your day (to exercise), you can reduce cardiovascular health conditions,” he said.