We all strive to give our minds and bodies what they need every day—and staying on top of heart health is of the utmost importance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list heart disease as the leading cause of death in the U.S., and when thinking about preventative measures, most people recognize the importance of staying active and maintaining a healthy diet. Fruits and vegetables, dairy, and whole grains top the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) list of heart-healthy foods. And when we maintain a balanced diet, it makes life’s indulgences that much sweeter. But one popular treat-yourself beverage has long toed the line of helpful or harmful—but when it comes to your heart, new data suggests it may actually be the latter. Read on to learn more about how any amount of this drink could be harming your heart.
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Low-risk drinking, or moderate drinking, has been defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as having no more than two drinks per day for men and one for women. While the agency states that “drinking less is better for health than drinking more,” findings from a new genetic study may make you reconsider pouring that glass of wine at all. When reviewing data, researchers found that all levels of alcohol consumption were associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
To complicate matters, doctors and healthcare providers have long been advising patients that having one drink each day actually helps maintain heart health. One such practitioner, Stanley L. Hazen, MD, PhD, cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told The New York Times that he was telling his patients this just last week, but that this new paper “totally changes” his life.
“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,” study author Krishna G. Aragam, MD, MS, preventive cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, told ScienceDaily.
Earlier research has suggested that light and moderate alcohol consumption have helped prevent cardiovascular diseases, as data has shown these drinkers have a lower risk when compared with heavy drinkers and those that don’t drink at all. Researchers in the present study observed the same relationship, but they found lowered risk is actually attributed to healthier lifestyle factors, rather than alcohol itself.
Researchers found that light drinkers, averaging between 0 and 8.4 drinks per week, and moderate drinkers, averaging between 8.4 and 15.4 drinks weekly, had lower rates of smoking, lower body mass index (BMI), higher rates of physical activity, and ate more vegetables than those who abstained from alcohol consumption. When researchers took these lifestyle factors into consideration, the previously observed association between moderate alcohol intake and lower risk of hypertension and coronary artery disease (CAD) was no longer significant.
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The primary analyses included data from a total of 371,463 participants collected from the U.K. Biokbank. Individuals had an average age of 57 and reported consuming an average of 9.2 standard drinks each week.
Rather than conducting another observational study where participants are followed over a period of time to see how one drinking affects their health, researchers wanted to understand whether drinking alcohol actually causes a person to be protected against cardiovascular disease.
Certain genetic variants have been found to predispose a person to different drinking habits. In this study, researchers found that those with gene variants that suggest they drink did indeed consume more, and they were also at greater risk of high blood pressure and CAD. Risk increased with the number of drinks, and when subjects progressed into the heavy drinking category, classified as 21 or more weekly drinks, the risk increased exponentially.
Findings were strengthened by replicated analyses of 30,716 participants from the Massachusetts General Brigham Biobank. Not only did data suggest that no amount of alcohol is protective against cardiovascular disease, but the study authors also cautioned that for the same reduction in alcohol intake, heavy drinkers may see significant improvements in heart health, while moderate drinkers may only see a slight improvement.
Individual risks vary depending on comorbid conditions, like diabetes and obesity, and the increase in blood pressure amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has also had healthcare professionals raising eyebrows, including Hazen.
This increase was nationwide and not found to be associated with changes in body weight, which may signal an association between drinking and heart health, Hazen posited to The New York Times. According to experts, this concerning speculation will need to be investigated in future studies.
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