Alcohol—even just one drink—increases the risk of AFib

Drinking alcohol makes an immediate impact on a person’s heart rhythm, according to new data presented May 17 at ACC.21, the American College of Cardiology’s 70th annual scientific session. Even just one glass can double the likelihood of an atrial fibrillation (AFib) event.

The study’s authors examined data from 100 patients with paroxysmal or intermittent AFib. The average age was 64 years old. While 85% of participants were white, 80% were men.

For the analysis, each patient wore a wearable heart monitor that continuously tracked their heart rhythm and an ankle sensor that could track alcohol consumption. The team found that every 0.1% increase in a person’s inferred blood alcohol concentration over the previous 12 hours was associated with an increase in their odds of an AFib event of as much as 40%.

In addition, the authors observed, a person’s total alcohol concentration over time may be used to predict their chance of experiencing an AFib event.

“Alcohol is the most commonly consumed drug in the world, and there is still a lot we don’t understand about what it does to our bodies and, in particular, our hearts,” lead author Gregory M. Marcus, MD, cardiologist and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a statement. “Based on our data, we found that alcohol can acutely influence the likelihood that an episode of AFib will occur within a few hours, and the more alcohol consumed, the higher the risk of having an event.”

Over the years, numerous research teams have concluded that alcohol can help protect a person’s heart—as long as it is done in moderation. This newest analysis goes against that way of thinking, the group observed. It also suggests that more research in this area is necessary.

“Patients have been telling us that alcohol is a trigger for AFib for a long time, but it’s been hard, if not impossible, to study because there is a critical temporal relationship that requires a real-time assessment of alcohol intake and heart rhythm,” Marcus said. “This is the first study to objectively demonstrate and quantify the real-time relationship between alcohol consumption and AFib episodes. While this study was limited to people with intermittent AFib, it’s reasonable to extrapolate the fact that in many people alcohol may be the main trigger for an initial episode.”

Marcus also noted that patients with AFib often ask him about ways to minimize future events. Based on these findings, he recommends minimizing—or even completely eliminating—alcohol consumption.

“But we have to consider quality of life as well, which is both relevant to arrhythmia symptoms and the opportunity to enjoy a glass of wine once in a while for some,” he said. “So, it’s not as simple as instructing everyone to avoid alcohol.”

Additional coverage from ACC.21 is available here.

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