Scientific Breakthroughs

Recent Study Links Cardiac Failure, Disorders to Alcohol Abuse

Recent Study Links Cardiac Failure, Disorders to Alcohol Abuse
PHOTOGRAPH: Yutacar | Photo shows people raising their glasses to drink.

A life without booze may be very difficult for some people to imagine, but quitting excessive drinking may spare individuals serious heart problems. The link between alcohol abuse and cardiac disease was investigated anew in a study recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

The study, conducted by heart specialists led by senior author Dr. Gregory Marcus, director of Clinical Research at the University of California, San Francisco Division of Cardiology, noted a key finding. Alcohol abuse increases people’s risk of incident atrial fibrillation, myocardial infarction, and congestive heart failure.

While that may be bad news for heavy drinkers, the findings have substantial value for medical practitioners especially in modeling potential public health impacts of a modifiable condition such as alcohol abuse.


A 2007 study published in the journal Circulation had previously concluded that moderate drinking could lower the risk of heart failure. That prompted Dr. Marcus to investigate further.

Marcus and his fellow researchers used Healthcare Cost Databases, Emergency Department Databases and State Inpatient Databases, and looked at residents aged 21 & older who have been hospitalized from 2005 to 2009. Analyzing the medical records of 14,727,591 patients of which 1.8 percent or around 268,000 were diagnosed with alcohol abuse, the doctor and his colleagues found that excessive alcohol-drinking doubled the risk of atrial fibrillation or arrhythmic beating of the heart.

Alcohol abuse entailed a 1.4-fold higher risk of heart attack, and a 2.3-fold risk of congestive heart failure – a chronic condition characterized by the heart’s inability to push blood through the arteries and to other organs and tissues in the body.

Defining Alcohol Abuse

Dr. Scott Krakower, assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in New Hyde Park, New York City, clarifies that alcohol abuse does not entail dependency on drink. Rather, abuse happens when it gets in the way of a person’s functioning when the drinking affects a person physically and psychologically, and in turn, leads to problems at work or in relationships.

As for the amount of alcohol that may be called excessive, it still depends on an individual’s metabolism. Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women’s heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City,  lamented how some media entities and some scientists have highlighted the good components of alcohol.

Steinbaum, who was not involved in the study, expressed in interviews the need to really understand the potential toxicity of alcohol. Dr. Steinbaum tweeted, “It’s not uncommon to see headlines like ‘The benefits of Wine’… But what should you believe?”

Treatment Options

Taking a close look at personal risk factors for a serious heart problem is clearly important. Curbing excessive drinking and other substance abuse, along with controlling cholesterol level, have long been underscored as best defenses against the dangers of heart disease.

Krakower identifies a number of treatment options for the alcohol abuser. One is motivational interviewing, a therapy in which the patient tries to find a particular motivation to quit drinking.

Premature aging and excess weight (as a result of heavy alcohol intake) may not be sufficient reasons for some people to quit. Saving oneself a whole lot of heart problems may sound off the alarm bells.

There are alternative routes for a recovering alcoholic, such as group therapy, family-based therapy, and taking part in Alcoholics Anonymous. Self-confessed alcohol drinkers also cite discovering healthier pursuits and diminished anxiety as among the reasons for giving up booze.


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