August 6, 2021

Does light to moderate drinking reduce risk of death for patients with heart disease? Here's what a new study found.

Daily Briefing

    A recent study published in BMC Medicine found that light to moderate alcohol usage may be linked to reduced risk of heart attack, stroke, and death for individuals with heart disease.

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    Study details

    For the study, the authors analyzed data from the UK Biobank, the Health Survey for England (1994-2008), the Scottish Health Survey (1995, 1998, 2003), and 12 previously published studies. In total, the study included 48,423 patients—14,386 from UK Biobank; 2,802 patients from the two health surveys; and 31,235 patients from the previous studies.

    For the study, authors separated patients into five different categories:

    • Never drinkers
    • Former drinkers
    • Low-level drinkers (<15 units/week)
    • Medium-level drinkers (15 to 50 units/week for men and 15 to 35 units/week for women)
    • High-level drinkers (>50 units/week for men and >35 units/week for women)

    According to Reuters, a unit refers to a standard U.K. unit of alcohol, which is equal to eight grams. In comparison, an average unit or alcoholic drink in the United States is 14 grams.

    The researchers then assessed patients' alcohol consumption in relation to three outcomes:

    • Death from any cause
    • Death from cardiovascular events
    • Major cardiovascular events, including heart attack, stroke, and angina

    Findings

    According to the authors, patients who drank eight grams or less of alcohol a day experienced a reduced risk in cardiovascular events, cardiovascular mortality, and mortality from any cause.

    Specifically, the researchers said the findings showed that people who drank an average of eight grams of alcohol per day reduced their risk of death from heart attack, stroke, or angina by 27%, and those who drank an average of seven grams of alcohol per day reduced their risk of death from any cause by 21%.

    However, the greatest reduction in risk was among those who drank an average of six grams of alcohol a day—reducing their risk of major cardiovascular events by 50%.

    The researchers also found drinking higher amounts of alcohol—up to an average of 15 grams a day—was linked to reductions in risks, but those reductions were smaller compared with lower amounts of alcohol. Meanwhile, even higher consumption of alcohol, up to 62 grams a day, was not associated with greater risks of heart attack or death compared with no alcohol consumption.

    Key insights—with a caveat

    "Our findings suggest that people with CVD (cardiovascular disease) may not need to stop drinking in order to prevent additional heart attacks, strokes or angina, but that they may wish to consider lowering their weekly alcohol intake," Chengyi Ding, a research student at University College London and one of the study's co-authors, said.

    However, the alcohol amounts linked to reductions in risk in the study's findings are lower than what is currently recommended by health organization, Reuters reports. For example, the American Heart Association's guidelines on alcohol consumption for heart patients recommend up to two U.S. drinks a day (28 grams) for men and one U.S. drink a day for women (14 grams).

    Additionally, the researchers caution that their findings may overestimate potential benefits for moderate drinkers with heart disease since heavy drinkers were underrepresented in the study and former drinkers were categorized separately.

    Moreover, even with potential reductions in risks, Ding said non-drinkers—including any who have heart disease—should not be encouraged to start drinking, even in small amounts, because of alcohol's known adverse health effects. "Alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of developing other illnesses," she said. (Nadeem, Reuters, 7/27)

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