Moderate drinking linked to decreased risk of heart failure

April 17, 2001

Heavy alcohol consumption has long been known to increase many health risks -- including the risk of heart failure. However, moderate alcohol use is linked to a reduced risk of heart attack. Now a new study by Emory University School of Medicine and Yale University School of Medicine researchers demonstrates for the first time that moderate use of alcohol is also associated with a lowered risk of heart failure among older people. The study is published in the April 18 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Jerome L. Abramson, Ph.D., a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Emory's Division of Cardiology, and colleagues studied 2,235 people, with an average age of approximately 74, from l982 through l996. When the study began, all were free of heart failure, a disorder in which the heart loses its ability to pump blood efficiently. In order to zero in on the specific effect of alcohol consumption on heart failure risk, the researchers controlled for variables including age, sex, race, education, angina (chest pain, usually with or following exertion), diabetes, heart attack, hypertension, pulse pressure, body mass index, and current smoking.

"We expected that moderate drinking would be linked to a lower incidence of heart failure because moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk of heart attack which would, in turn, lower heart failure risk, " Dr. Abramson explains. "What was surprising was that moderate drinking was linked to less heart failure independent of heart attack risk. That suggests alcohol is lowering the risk of heart failure through another pathway than the one that lowers risk of heart attack."

During follow-up, a total of 281 study participants experienced a first heart failure event and 28 of those died. The people who reported the highest levels of alcohol consumption (in the moderate range of 21 to 70 ounces per month) had the lowest rates of heart failure -- a 47 percent decrease in risk when compared to non-drinkers. Those consuming no alcohol had the highest incidence of the disorder. The study found similar reductions in heart failure risk no matter whether study participants drank beer, wine or liquor. "That suggests it is pure alcohol, and not the kind of beverage, that is lowering the heart failure risk," Dr. Abramson says.

The researchers point out that no one should use their conclusions as an excuse to drink excessively. In fact, heavy consumption of alcohol can lead to higher blood pressure, cardiomyopathy, and even sudden death. "In addition, moderate drinking has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer," notes Dr. Abramson. "Nevertheless, our study adds to the growing evidence that moderate consumption of alcohol may offer protective cardiovascular benefits."
Support for this alcohol consumption and heart failure risk study was provided by the National Institute on Aging and from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Emory University Health Sciences Center

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