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Contrary to observational studies, alcohol consumption may not actually counter the risk of heart disease, according to a large study published in JAMA Network Open this week.
Previous observational studies suggested that consuming small amounts of alcohol may provide heart-related health benefits, but a team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard found in a recent study that alcohol intake at all levels was linked with higher risks of cardiovascular disease.
The Boston researchers suggested that the supposed benefits of drinking alcohol might actually be attributed to other healthy lifestyle factors that are typically followed among light to moderate drinkers, the study said.
“The findings affirm that alcohol intake should not be recommended to improve cardiovascular health; rather, that reducing alcohol intake will likely reduce cardiovascular risk in all individuals, albeit to different extents based on one’s current level of consumption,” the study’s senior author, Dr. Krishna Aragam, a cardiologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and an associate scientist at MIT’s Broad Institute, said in a news release.
The researchers defined the drinking groups as abstainers (0 drinks per week.), light drinkers (>0-8.4 drinks per week), moderate (>8.4- 15.4 drinks per week), heavy (>15.4-24.5 drinks per week) and abusive (>24.5 drinks per week), according to the study.
The investigators used analyses of genetic and medical data of over 371,000 people, averaging 57 years of age and reportedly consumed nine drinks per week, who participated in the U.K. Biobank (a British database used by scientists and investigators to study genes and their association with health), according to a news release. The authors also said the finding showing the link between heart risk and drinking was exponential rather than linear was supported by their additional analysis of data from more than 30,000 U.S. participants in the Mass General Brigham Biobank.
According to the study, the Boston researchers observed consistent findings with previous studies where light to moderate drinkers had the lowest heart disease risk, followed by non-drinkers. They also found individuals who consumed heavy amounts of alcohol had the highest risk of heart disease.
The investigators also found light to moderate drinkers tended to engage in healthier lifestyles that included less smoking and more physical activity and increased vegetable intake in their diets, as compared to those who did not drink. The investigators suggested that these lifestyle factors might play a more significant role in lowering the risk of heart disease, rather than the consumption of alcohol, according to the study.
The researchers relied on Mendelian randomization, a method used to help determine cause and effect whereas previous published studies were observational, meaning a correlation but not causation was found, researchers explained to Fox News.
The researchers used the Mendelian randomization technique along with analyzing phenotypic and genetic data from participants, to understand the association and determine if consuming light levels of alcohol can actually cause an individual to be protected against developing heart disease, the release said.
“Newer and more advanced techniques in ‘non-linear Mendelian randomization’ now permit the use of human genetic data to evaluate the direction and magnitude of disease risk associated with different levels of an exposure,” Aragam said in the release.
The group found upon conducting genetic analysis of the participants that individuals with genetic variants that predicted higher alcohol consumption were actually likely to drink more alcohol, and more likely to have coronary artery disease and high blood pressure, the study said.
The study analysis found substantial differences in risk of heart disease and high blood pressure in both men and women as the number of drinks consumed increased.
The authors wrote in the release that there were “minimal increases in risk when consuming zero to seven drinks per week, much higher risk increases when progressing from seven to 14 drinks per week, and especially high risk when consuming 21 or more drinks per week.”
The findings also suggested that there is an increased risk for cardiovascular disease even when consuming less than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women, which is the “low risk” levels established by the national guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The researchers said their findings of the exponential relationship between alcohol consumption and risk of heart diseases was supported further when they analyzed additional data from over 30,000 individuals from a Mass General Brigham Bank. They concluded in the study that cutting back on alcohol intake cannot only benefit people who drink one alcoholic beverage per day, but it may have substantial health gains in those who consume more.
Dr. Maryann McLaughlin, a cardiologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC, was not involved in the study but commented to Fox News: “This article adds to the growing literature that alcohol is not good for the heart. We now have more evidence that alcohol can increase risk for atrial fibrillation or other irregular heart rhythms. Moderate to heavy use of alcohol can lead to physiologic and anatomical changes in the heart.”
Dr. Evelina Grayver, the director of the Women’s Heart Program at the Katz Institute for Women’s Health in Northwell Health’s Central Region in New York, also commented on the study to Fox News and said, “The study is phenomenal. It is clear that we can no longer look at just one factor alone in regards to risks for heart disease. It is interesting that the study linked the amount of drinking with other life habits. And it makes absolute sense that those patients who drink excessively have other poor life habits and risk factors, including smoking, obesity and a more sedentary lifestyle all lead to heart disease.”
Gravyer, who is also the board of directors vice president at the American Heart Association of Long Island, added: “Similarly, those who do not drink at all may not give themselves an opportunity to take a moment to relax and possibly decrease their stress levels.”