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Moderate to heavy drinking increases risk of irregular heartbeat

Moderate drinking is widely believed to have protective effects for the heart. However, a new study has found that heavy drinking may cause a heart condition called atrial fibrillation.
By David McNamee

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?


For people who have never had heart problems, moderate drinking slightly reduces the risk of heart disease. The risk of getting heart problems, including an irregular heart beat ( atrial fibrillation), increases the older we get. Atrial fibrillation can increase your chance of having a stroke. People who have diabetes or who already have heart problems are more at risk of getting atrial fibrillation than others. This study looked at the relationship between moderate to heavy drinking and atrial fibrillation in older people who have a history of heart disease or diabetes.

What does the new study say?

The study looked at 30,433 people aged 55 or older who had no history of atrial fibrillation. The patients in the study all had either diabetes or heart disease, and 2,093 of these people went on to experience atrial fibrillation.

The researchers found that binge drinking (having more than five alcoholic drinks a day) increased the risk of atrial fibrillation. They also estimated that for every 100 cases of atrial fibrillation occurring in the study’s moderate drinkers, on average, about five could have been prevented by people quitting drinking altogether. The researchers believe that the cases of atrial fibrillation in moderate drinkers may have been caused by occasional binge drinking on weekends or holidays.

The researchers conducting the study defined moderate drinking as consuming no more than two glasses of wine or beer a day if you’re a woman, or three glasses of wine or beer a day if you’re a man.

How reliable is the research?

The researchers analysed data from two large drug treatment trials. There were some problems with the study. Although the patients reported their alcohol intake at the start of the study, this was not followed up later on. So if someone changed their alcohol intake over time, or stopped drinking altogether, this was not recorded and it may have affected the findings. Also, the researchers didn’t compare the patients in the study with people who already had symptoms of atrial fibrillation, and this may have misrepresented the number of cases caused by alcohol.

What does this mean for me?

If you have heard about the positive effects of alcohol on the heart and you have heart disease or diabetes, you may want to bear the results of this study in mind when monitoring your alcohol intake.

Published on October 02, 2012

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