Drinking heavily in college may lead to heart disease later in life

April 19, 2007

College-age students who drink heavily may increase their risk for future heart disease, researchers reported at the American Heart Association's 8th Annual Conference on Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology.

In a small study, Minnesota researchers found that a group of college students who drank heavily had higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a blood marker for inflammation that can increase the risk for heart disease. Increased CRP placed heavy drinkers at moderate risk for cardiovascular disease in early adulthood. Moderate drinkers had the lowest CRP levels.

"These students may be setting themselves up for an increased risk for cardiovascular disease," said Elizabeth Donovan, lead researcher of the study and an undergraduate student at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn. "This highlights an additional reason to be concerned about heavy drinking in college-age individuals." While most studies of alcohol and CRP levels have focused on older people, this small study examined individuals in early adulthood.

"If high CRP levels are recognized at an early age, the person has a chance to make healthier lifestyle choices," Donovan said.

Twenty-five college-age individuals completed surveys that assessed factors that can affect CRP levels such as alcohol consumption patterns, medication use, smoking habits and recent weight loss. Researchers assigned the students to one of three groups:One drink was equal to 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol.

Students on oral contraceptives, hormone therapy, cholesterol-lowering therapy or who had a significant recent weight loss were excluded from the study.

The average CRP for students in the study was 0.9 milligrams per liter (mg/L), placing the group as a whole at low risk. CRP levels less than 1 mg/L are associated with low risk for cardiovascular disease. CRP levels between 1 and 3 mg/L are associated with moderate risk and CRP levels above 3 mg/L are associated with high risk for future cardiovascular disease.

The researchers found that college students who were moderate drinkers had significantly lower CRP levels than heavy drinkers, with the average level at 0.58 mg/L for moderate drinkers, but rising to 1.25 mg/L for heavy drinkers. While the non- or low drinkers had CRP levels of 0.85 mg/L, the difference between them and moderate drinkers was not significant.

"A J-shaped pattern emerged indicating that even in a young, otherwise healthy population, heavy drinking is associated with elevated CRP levels," Donovan said. "CRP levels of individuals who consumed high amounts of alcohol were significantly greater than CRP levels in individuals who consumed moderate amounts. CRP levels in those who consumed no or low amounts of alcohol were greater than those who consumed moderate amounts, but the difference wasn't statistically significant."

The researchers also found these CRP relationships:"While moderate alcohol intake appears to have some health benefits, we must advise against heavy and binge drinking," Donovan said.

Caution should be exercised in interpreting these findings as the results were from a non-random survey of a small group of college students. Researchers suggest further investigation is needed.

The American Heart Association recommends that people who drink alcohol do so in moderation. This means an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. (A drink is 12 ounces beer, four ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits, or one ounce of 100-proof spirits.).

Drinking alcohol excessively increases such dangers as alcoholism, high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, breast cancer, suicide and accidents. Also, it's not possible to predict in which people alcoholism will become a problem. So the association cautions people not to start drinking alcohol if they do not already. Consult your doctor on the benefits and risks of consuming alcohol in moderation.
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Donovan's co-author was Amy Olson, Ph.D., R.D., L.D.

Statements and conclusions of abstract authors that are presented at American Heart Association/American Stroke Association scientific meetings are solely those of the abstract authors and do not necessarily reflect association policy or position. The associations make no representation or warranty as to their accuracy or reliability.

American Heart Association

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