Moderate alcohol intake linked to reduced risk of heart failure
20 January 2015
Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol — a small glass of wine or
half a pint of beer a day — is associated with a 20% lower risk of
men developing heart failure and a 16% reduced risk for women. The
study, which followed nearly 15,000 people for 24 years, has been
published in the European Heart Journal.
Dr Scott Solomon, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School
and Senior Physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, USA,
Dr Alexandra Gonçalves, a research fellow at Brigham and Women’s
Hospital, and colleagues analysed data from 14,629 people aged
between 45-64 years who had been recruited to the Atherosclerosis
Risk in Communities Study between 1987 and 1989 in four communities
in the USA.
They followed the participants for 24-25 years to the end of
2011, and they questioned them about their alcohol consumption at
the start and at each of the three subsequent visits made at
three-yearly intervals. They defined 'a drink' as one that contains
14g of alcohol, equivalent to approximately one small (125ml) glass
of wine, just over half a pint or a third of a litre of beer, and
less than one shot of liquor such as whisky or vodka.
The study participants were divided into six categories:
abstainers (people who recorded having drunk no alcohol at every
visit by the researchers), former drinkers, people who drank up to
seven drinks a week, or between 7-14 drinks, 14-21 drinks, or 21 or
more drinks a week.
During the follow-up period 1271 men and 1237 women developed
heart failure. The analysis took into account various factors that
could affect the results, such as age, diabetes, high blood
pressure, heart disease or heart attacks, body mass index,
cholesterol levels, physical activity, education and smoking.
It found that:
- Men who consumed up to seven drinks a week had a 20%
reduced risk of developing heart failure compared to abstainers,
while the risk was reduced by 16% in women consuming the same
- Former drinkers had the highest risk of developing heart
failure – a 19% and 17% increased risk among men and women
respectively compared to abstainers.
- Interestingly, among both men and women consuming the most
amount of alcohol (14 or more drinks a week), the risk of heart
failure was not significantly different compared to the risk for
- Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol over a long period of
time is known to increase the risk of cardiomyopathy. However,
the number of very heavy drinkers in the study was small, which
could have limited its power to detect such an association.
- When the researchers looked at death from any cause, there
was an increased risk of death of 47% for men and 89% of women
who reported consuming 21 or more drinks a week at the start of
Professor Solomon said: “These findings suggest that drinking
alcohol in moderation does not contribute to an increased risk of
heart failure and may even be protective. No level of alcohol intake
was associated with a higher risk of heart failure. However, heavy
alcohol use is certainly a risk factor for deaths from any cause.
“The people who were classified as former drinkers at the start
of the study had a higher risk of developing heart failure and of
death from any cause when compared with abstainers. This could be
related to the reasons why they had stopped drinking in the first
place, for instance because they had already developed health
problems that might have made them more likely to go on to develop
heart failure.” /p>
The protective effect of moderate drinking were more marginal in
women than in men and the authors think this may be due to the fact
that women metabolise alcohol in a different way to men and it can
affect them differently.
Overall, most participants were abstainers (42%) or former
drinkers (19%), with 25% reporting up to seven drinks a week, 8%
reporting seven to 14 drinks a week, and 3% reporting drinking 14-21
and 21 or more drinks a week respectively. Most drinkers also drank
more than one type of drink. This meant that the researchers were
unable to assess the role of binge drinking or any differences
between types of drink.
“It is important to bear in mind that our study shows there is an
association between drinking moderate amounts of alcohol and a lower
risk of heart failure but this does not necessarily mean that
moderate alcohol consumption causes the lowered risk, although we
did adjust our results to take account, as far as possible, for a
variety of other lifestyle factors that could affect a person’s
risk,” concluded Professor Solomon.
What is heart failure?
Heart failure is a
condition in which the heart can no longer pump blood around the
body as well as it used to. The most common reason is that the heart
muscle has been damaged, for instance by a heart attack. High blood
pressure, heart muscle disease (cardiomyopathy), heart valve
problems, an irregular heart beat (arrhythmia), viral infections,
drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, consuming recreational drugs
and the side-effects of radiotherapy treatment for cancer can all
contribute to heart failure developing. Heart failure is a major
public health problem with over 23 million people living with it
1. Alexandra Gonçalves et al. Alcohol consumption and risk of heart failure: the
Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study. European Heart Journal. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehu514