How Heavy Drinking Can Damage Your Young, Healthy Heart

By May Wilkerson 11/12/15

Researchers found that young and middle-aged subjects saw the most profound effects from heaving drinking.

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If you’re a heavy drinker, you could be putting your heart at risk, even if you’re young and otherwise healthy. A new study finds that excessive alcohol intake can increase a person’s risk of heart failure by 70%. The detrimental effects are actually more pronounced in young and middle-aged adults and those with no other cardiovascular health issues.

In the study, researchers analyzed the medical records of more than 858,000 California patients, ranging in age from 30s to 70s, who were treated between 2005-09. Overall, about 12% developed congestive heart failure, said researchers. Alcohol abuse was found to be a strong predictor of the condition, even when adjusting for other risk factors, like age, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and high cholesterol.

Alcohol abuse was even more likely to cause heart problems among people who had no other heart risk factors. "If you are a healthier person, your heart is disproportionately more susceptible to the toxicities of alcohol," study study lead Dr. Isaac Whitman, an electrophysiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. For people with preexisting heart conditions, on the other hand, he explained: "Your heart is already sick, so the added toxicity from alcohol does not have as much of an impact.”

Heavy alcohol intake can harm the heart in various ways. For one, it can make the heart less effective at pumping blood. People who have five or more drinks a day over several years can also develop a condition called alcoholic cardiomyopathy, in which the heart becomes bloated and enlarged. "It becomes a sack and it barely squeezes," explained Whitman. "You quit drinking, and it goes away."

Excessive drinking also raises blood pressure, which can damage the heart and blood vessels. "The more you drink, the higher your blood pressure," said Dr. Robert Eckel, a professor and cardiologist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. "Once you're drinking three or four drinks a day, your blood pressure elevates."

Young, healthy people may want to consider cutting back on the booze, suggests Whitman. "In the case of alcohol, I don't think it's prudent to say I can abuse alcohol because I'm young and healthy," he said. "You may be hurting yourself relatively more than your older counterparts. You have more to lose."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.