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Moderate drinking may be linked to subtle heart damage in older women

Older women who regularly drink even a moderate amount of alcohol may be at risk for subtle decline in heart function, a new study found. These are heart changes that are usually too small to cause symptoms. However, this type of change can be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease such as heart failure.

The study results suggest that alcohol may have a more serious effect on women’s hearts than men’s.

To look at how moderate drinking may affect heart health, this study asked participants about their drinking habits, and examined their heart function with an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart). The participants had an average age of 76, and were all taking part in the larger Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study. Sixty per cent of the study subjects were women.

The researchers divided the 4,466 study participants into four groups based on their answers to a questionnaire about their drinking habits: nondrinkers, people who had seven drinks or fewer per week, people who had between seven and 14 drinks per week, and people who had more than 14 drinks per week. People who were former drinkers but who no longer drank were not included in the study.

Researchers already know that heavy drinking is linked to a condition called alcoholic cardiomyopathy. Patients with alcoholic cardiomyopathy have an enlarged heart, and in particular an enlarged left ventricle, which is the chamber that pumps blood to the rest of the body. The left ventricle may become enlarged when something causes the heart to work harder to pump blood. An enlarged left ventricle may not pump efficiently, and has been linked to heart problems such as heart failure.

In the current study, the changes seen in the size and function of parts of the heart were much smaller than those seen in alcoholic cardiomyopathy. However, the study results showed that as drinking increased, so did the subtle decline in heart function. This was true for both men and women, but the threshold was lower in women.

At any level of alcohol consumption, women’s heart ventricles showed a bigger decline in function than men’s. In women, even moderate drinking (up to seven drinks per week) was linked to a small reduction in the heart’s ability pump out blood.

The researchers, who were led by Dr. Scott Solomon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, concluded that women may be more sensitive than men to alcohol’s harmful effects on the heart. This may mean that women are at higher risk for alcoholic cardiomyopathy.

The study was published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging on May 26, 2015.


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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital