Drinking this daily linked to higher risk of this serious heart health issue

Many swear by a nice relaxing glass of wine before bed each night or a refreshing beer after a long day of work. How much harm could just one drink do anyway? Well, according to a new study just published by the European Society of Cardiology, even just one small alcoholic drink per day is linked to a significantly higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat).

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a two-fold health issue. Besides producing awful symptoms like constant fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, and a feeling like your heart is about to beat out of your chest, AFib also puts individuals at a much higher risk of suffering a heart attack, stroke, or another major cardiovascular health event.

Everyone knows that drinking lots of alcohol regularly will wreak havoc on one’s health. However, many believe that moderate consumption like a single nightly drink isn’t a big deal.

In fact, some prior research suggests that a daily glass of wine can offer some heart health benefits and even lower the risk of heart failure. These findings, however, challenge the notion that alcohol is “good” for the heart, at least when it comes to AFib risk.

Researchers report that in comparison to someone who never drinks alcohol, an individual drinking one alcoholic beverage per day is 16% more likely to develop AFib over an average period of just under 14 years. Predictably, that risk continues to rise the more a person drinks on a daily basis; two daily drinks are linked to a 28% higher risk and more than four per day will result in a 47% higher chance of developing AFib.

For this research, a single alcoholic drink was classified as anything containing 12g of ethanol; which would be the equivalent of a small glass of wine or single beer.

“To our knowledge, this is the largest study on alcohol consumption and long-term incidence of atrial fibrillation in the community. Previous studies have not had enough power to examine this question, although they have been able to show a relationship between alcohol intake and other heart and blood vessel problems, such as heart attack and heart failure. In our study, we can now demonstrate that even very low regular alcohol consumption may increase the risk of atrial fibrillation,” says study leader Professor Renate Schnabel, a consultant cardiologist at the University Heart and Vascular Center, Hamburg-Eppendorf.

“These findings are important as the regular consumption of alcohol, the ‘one glass of wine a day’ to protect the heart, as is often recommended for instance in the lay press, should probably no longer be suggested without balancing risks and possible benefits for all heart and blood vessel diseases, including atrial fibrillation,” she adds.

A large population sample of 107,845 people (average age 48 years old) living in Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland was analyzed for this project. After providing relevant health, lifestyle (drinking habits), and demographic information, participants consented to have their heart health tracked for the following 14 years. At the beginning of the observation period, most participants (100,092) did not have AFib. By the end of the tracking period, 5,854 had been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. 

It’s important to note that study authors say it didn’t matter if an individual was male or female, or what type of beverage they drank each day (liquor, wine, etc). If a subject drank alcohol every day, their AFib risk was higher.

Notably, this analysis also revealed the confusing finding that despite all of these AFib-related reasons to avoid alcohol, low levels of alcohol consumption were also associated with a lower risk of suffering heart failure in comparison to those who never drink. 

In conclusion, researchers say alcohol has a very complex relationship with the human cardiovascular system and heart. These results suggest moderate alcohol consumption can simultaneously increase the risk of AFib while helping mitigate one’s chances of suffering heart failure. Clearly, more research on this topic is needed to flush out some clearer conclusions.

“Together with a recent randomized trial showing that a reduction in alcohol intake led to a reduction in AF recurrence, these data suggest that lowering alcohol consumption may be important for both prevention and management of AF. Importantly, any reduction in low-to-moderate alcohol consumption to potentially prevent AF needs to be balanced with the potentially beneficial association low amounts of alcohol may have with respect to other cardiovascular outcomes,” comments Jorge A. Wong and David Conen from the Population Health Research Institute at McMaster University.

“The net clinical benefit of consuming low amounts of alcohol requires further study, ideally in adequately powered randomized trials. Until then, each individual has to make its own best educated decision as to whether consuming up to one alcoholic drink per day is worthwhile and safe,” they conclude.

The full study can be found here, published in the European Heart Journal.