If you believe that moderate drinking helps to prevent heart attacks, think again. The alcoholic beverage industry promotes studies showing that moderate drinkers live slightly longer than non-drinkers, but the non-drinking groups in these studies have included people who gave up alcohol on their doctors’ instructions: those with high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, some types of cancer, diseases of the heart, kidney, liver or lungs or other health problems, as well as recovering alcoholics. A recent study with a 20-year-follow-up of 4,028 18-to-64-year-old German adults found that when the people who had stopped drinking for medical reasons were removed from the control group, moderate drinkers did not live longer than non-drinkers (PLOS Medicine, Nov 2, 2021;18(11):e1003819).
An earlier analysis of 45 studies on more than 9000 British adults showed that once the researchers removed people who had stopped drinking alcohol for critical health reasons, the drinkers showed no advantage over the non-drinkers. The authors of this analysis believe that nobody should drink because they have been told that alcohol has health benefits (J Stud Alcohol and Drugs, May 2017;78(3):375-386).
Alcohol and Heart Damage
Drinking any amount of alcohol is associated with increased risk for irregular heartbeats or atrial fibrillation (European Heart J, March 21, 2021;42(12):1170-1177). A study of 79,000 Swedish adults, aged 45-83, followed for up to 12 years, showed that those who drank any amount of wine or liquor daily were at increased risk for atrial fibrillation, an abnormally fast heartbeat that can cause clots, strokes and heart failure (J American College of Cardiology, July 14, 2014). The more they drank, the more likely they were to develop atrial fibrillation.
People who take just one drink a day are at increased risk for heart disease (J American College of Cardiology, December 5, 2016) and enlarged upper heart and irregular heartbeats that cause clots and strokes (J Am Heart Assoc, Sep 14, 2016;5:e004060; J Am Coll Cardiol, 2016;68(23):2567-2576). Binge drinking, defined as having five or more drinks in a single bout, increased risks even more. Data from six studies including more than 12,500 cases of atrial fibrillation showed that each additional drink per day of any type of alcohol boosted risk of irregular heartbeat by eight percent (J Am Coll Card, July 14, 2014). Many other studies have associated drinking alcohol with atrial fibrillation, high blood pressure, heart failure and strokes. Association is not cause, but I believe that these studies give reason for caution.
Some heart benefits from drinking small amounts of alcohol continue to show up in other studies. A recent study of 48,423 British men and women found that light drinking was associated with a reduced risk for heart attacks, strokes or death among those with heart disease (BMC Medicine, July 26, 2021;19(167)). However, the authors conclude that their study “should not encourage non-drinkers to take up light drinking because of known adverse effects on other health outcomes, such as cancers.” See Alcohol At Any Dose Can Increase Cancer Risk
Alcohol and Your Liver
Alcohol is a poison that has a strong affinity to bind with water so it pulls water out of cells and makes them shrivel up like a prune. Alcohol can damage every type of cell in your body, and your liver is the only organ that protects you. Your liver breaks down alcohol at a relatively constant rate, but first alcohol is converted to acetaldehyde, which is even more poisonous. It can make you feel like throwing up and make your face burn.
Drinking alcohol regularly increases risk for permanent liver damage called cirrhosis (Journal of Hepatology, January 26, 2015). Wine is associated with a lower risk for liver damage than beer or liquor. The authors of this study warn that older drinkers are more likely to have health conditions affected by alcohol or to take medicines that impair their ability to metabolize alcohol.
Many people have the mistaken belief that it is safe for women to take up to one drink per day and for men to take up to two drinks per day. Almost 30 percent of North Americans drink more than that. The studies I have listed in this article and many more suggest that no amount of alcohol is “safe” or beneficial. Whatever you decide about your own consumption of alcohol, do not base your decision on bad information from the alcoholic beverage industry.