(CNN)An estimated 10 million to 15 million Americans abuse alcohol, meaning excessive drinking negatively affects their lives. Now, research suggests a link between too much drinking and heart problems, the No. 1 cause of death worldwide.
Abusing alcohol increases the likelihood of suffering atrial fibrillation, heart attack or congestive heart failure, according to a study published Monday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
“One of the most surprising findings… is that people who abused alcohol are at increased risk for heart attack or myocardial infarction,” said Dr. Gregory M. Marcus, director of clinical research in the Division of Cardiology at the University of California, San Franciscoand senior author of the study. Past data suggests that moderate drinking may be protective, he said, helping ward off this disease.
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women’s heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, believes that both scientists and the media have been highlighting the good components of alcohol, such as resveratrol in wine, and “been really pushing that a glass of wine is good for our health.”
But the bottom line of this new study is clear, she said.
“When we look at alcohol, we have almost glamorized it as being this substance that can help us live a really heart-healthy life,” said Steinbaum, who was not involved in the research. “I think, ultimately, drinking in excess leads to heart conditions, and we should really understand the potential toxicity of alcohol and not glamorize it as something we should include as part of our lives — certainly not in excess.”
Millions of patient records
The National Institutes of Health frequently highlight the ways in which too much drinking can lead to accidents, cirrhosis and some cancers. Yet cardiovascular studies have suggested that moderate consumption of alcohol is good for our heart health.
From there, Krakower said, treatment options include motivational interviewing, a type of therapy in which the goal is for a patient to “find some motivation to quit.” There’s also group therapy, family-based therapy techniques and, of course, Alcoholics Anonymous.
Still there are nuances when it comes to drinking.
“We have an understanding (by the American Heart Association) that a glass of wine a day for women and two glasses of wine a day for men are good,” Steinbaum said. “What is a glass? Four to 6 ounces.”
Yet if you go out to dinner and order a glass of wine, she said with a laugh, “it’s like 12 ounces!”
The exact equation of how much is too much has never really been answered, and “part of the reason for that is metabolism is different in everyone,” Steinbaum said. Metabolism of alcohol is slower for women than for men, and individual fat distribution and muscle mass also play into how quickly alcohol is metabolized.
“It becomes a very individual thing,” she said. “The American Heart Association has given us very conservative guidelines, saying if you’re going to drink, this is how much but the big picture is alcohol in excess — and excess is more than a very minimal amount — is bad for your heart.”
Still, no matter the characteristics of any individual patient, excessive alcohol is an important risk factor for atrial fibrillation and heart failure, Marcus said: “Increasing awareness of this both among practitioners and individuals may actually reduce or prevent those important diseases.”