Heavy drinking is bad for the heart and for the arteries. Furthermore, heavy alcohol consumption affects men and women differently – although in the long run, the effects are never beneficial. This is according to a report presented at American Society of Hypertension 2008 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, LA in May.
Men: Heavy drinking among men leads to elevated blood pressure. Chronic high blood pressure then leads to stiffening of the arteries.
Women: Among women, heavy drinking does not necessarily cause high blood pressure but they are more at risk of developing enlarged hearts with structural abnormalities.
The study investigated 200 men and women in Dublin, Ireland who were patients in a hypertension clinic. The drinking habits of the patients were classified as follows:
- moderate drinkers (males: 1 to 21 units of alcohol per week; females: 1 to 14 units per week)
- heavy drinkers (males: >21 units per week; females: >14 units per week)
The patients were then followed up by blood pressure measurements, conventional ECG and tissue Doppler imaging. Pulse-wave velocity and augmentation index were used to measure arterial stiffness.
“Investigators observed in men a dose-response relationship between alcohol intake and aortic systolic and diastolic blood pressure, the augmentation index, pulse-wave velocity, and indices of diastolic function. Even among those who drank moderately, there were significant increases in aortic blood pressures and the augmentation index. These findings, however, differed from the females in the study. In women, there was a dose-response relationship between alcohol and left ventricular septal and posterior wall thickness and left ventricular mass index. Even among heavy female drinkers, there was no relationship between drinking and arterial stiffness and high blood pressures.“
The results, especially those for women, were especially surprising. For one thing, heavy drinker females do not necessarily develop hypertension. It is a common belief that it is chronic hypertension that leads to the deleterious cardiovascular effects. Women, however, are more likely to develop liver disease than men. This difference is due to the fact that women are smaller and have relatively lesser liver enzymes to metabolize alcohol.
The study, however, shows that women are not only at risk for liver disease, but for heart disease as well. In fact, for women, the bad effects are not evident in the arteries but directly in the heart itself.
The heart enlargement among heavy drinking women can eventually lead to heart failure. With this condition, the heart muscles become weaker and weaker and will eventually lose the capacity to contract.
A rise in the rate of alcohol consumption among females has been the trend in Ireland. The researchers speculate that this might be due to the country’s booming economy as well as the belief that alcohol is actually beneficial to your health.
Indeed, several recent studies have reported that light to moderate alcohol consumption may actually be good for the heart. However, it seems that we need to draw a line between moderate drinking and drinking that is harmful to our health.