Heavy Drinkers Can Add Heavy Burden To Their Risk For Stroke

May 07, 1998

DALLAS, May 8 -- Studies have shown moderate amounts of alcohol can be beneficial in reducing the risk of heart attack or stroke, but too much of a good thing can turn bad according to a report in this month's Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association.

Italian and Austrian researchers examined the drinking habits of 826 men and women and found that those who drank the most -- more than four bottles of beer per day -- were most likely to develop fatty buildup in the vessels leading to the brain, setting the stage for stroke.

"Regular consumption of more than 100 grams of alcohol per day emerged as a prominent risk factor for early development of deposits that clog the arteries," says lead author Stefan Kiechl, M.D., of the department of neurology at the Innsbruck University Hospital in Innsbruck, Austria. "We found that it even surpassed the effects of heavy smoking (20 or more cigarettes per day) as a risk factor for stroke."

The researchers focused on the effects alcohol has upon early atherosclerosis -- which results when fatty deposits in the blood clump together to form plaques on the tissue lining of blood vessels. They found that alcohol consumption could be associated with the development, or inhibition, of early atherosclerosis.

Low alcohol intake -- defined as having 25 grams of alcohol per day, the equivalent of one bottle of beer -- cut in half the risk of developing blockages in the arteries that lead to the brain. Kiechl says previous research has shown alcohol has chemicals that help negate the formation of clots in the bloodstream. He admits it's possible this discovery may have been a chance finding, adding that further research is needed to prove that low alcohol intake can have such a dramatic effect.

Drinking less than once a week was shown to have no measurable effect on one's risk for developing atherosclerosis. Light drinkers faced a lower risk of atherosclerosis than did either heavy drinkers or abstainers. "The protection offered by alcohol consumption of 50 grams per day resulted because the alcohol can lessen the vessel injuries brought about by high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the 'bad' cholesterol," says Kiechl.

He says that no consistent evidence emerged to determine whether any of the beverages -- beer, white or red wine, spirits or liqueurs -- was superior in terms of reducing stroke risk. He adds that men and women did not differ in this response to alcohol in the study.

American Heart Association

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