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Jun 08, 2015

Alcohol Alters Heart Function in Elderly Adults

Study finds that drinking alcohol causes changes in heart size and function, especially in elderly women.

Even moderate drinking can alter heart function in elderly adults, according to a study recently published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging.

It's well known that excessive alcohol consumption takes a toll on heart health. Drinking too much can cause abnormal heart muscle called cardiomyopathy, which increases risk for serious conditions like heart failure, cardiac arrest and even death. But many studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption, defined as up to 1 drink a day for women and up to 2 drinks a day for men, may protect the heart.

To learn more about the effects of alcohol in elderly adults, researchers analyzed data from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study. The study included nearly 4,500 adults around 76 years old from four communities in North Carolina, Mississippi, Minnesota and Maryland. Researchers followed participants from the late 1980s through 2013, regularly collecting information regarding alcohol use. Toward the end of the study, participants underwent an echo test that takes moving pictures of the heart to assess overall heart function.

After comparing results, researchers found that any level of regular alcohol consumption was associated with changes in heart structure and function. In both men and women, the more alcohol participants consumed, the larger the heart size was. And in women, increased alcohol intake was associated with worsening heart function.

Study findings suggest that drinking any amount of alcohol can alter heart structure and function in elderly adults. Although excessive drinking puts individuals at higher risk for heart conditions, it's possible that even moderate drinking may promote the development of abnormal heart muscle.

Similarly to other findings, this study suggests that women are especially vulnerable to the negative health effects of alcohol. Research shows that female drinkers tend to develop abnormal heart muscle earlier in life than men. Women are also more sensitive to the negative health effects of alcohol, which is why the upper limit for moderate drinking is one drink a day for women, compared to two a day for men. As authors explain, women should be especially mindful of drinking habits, as too much alcohol can lead to serious health conditions.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What is cardiomyopathy?
  • Cardiomyopathy refers to diseases of the heart muscle, which cause the heart to become weaker and can lead to serious complications such as heart failure, abnormal heart rhythm or heart valve problems. Cardiomyopathy can vary in severity, as some patients can have no symptoms while others have debilitating symptoms that require immediate treatment. However, cardiomyopathy often worsens over time, weakening the heart and making it difficult for the heart to pump enough blood to the rest of the body.
  • What does "one drink" mean when it comes to alcohol?
  • If you drink alcohol, it’s recommended to do so in moderation, which means up to two drinks a day for men and up to one drink a day for women. A drink is one 12 oz. beer, 4 oz. serving of wine, 1.5 oz. of 80-proof spirits or 1 oz. of 100-proof spirits.

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Among some of the benefits of drinking a modest amount of alcohol are decreased risk of heart attack, decreased risk of ischemic stroke, decreased risk of blood clotting, and increased levels of good cholesterol.