Frequent binge drinkers—particularly men—are more likely to have cardiovascular risk factors such as hypertension and high cholesterol than other young adults, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
“Compared to previous generations, the pervasiveness, intensity and regularity of binge drinking may place today’s young adult at greater risk for more profound rates of alcohol-attributable harm,” lead author Mariann Piano, PhD, RN, the senior associate dean for research at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, said in a press release. “Young adults need to be aware that the consequences of repeated binge drinking may harm their hearts.”
Binge drinking is typically defined as four or more drinks on one occasion for women and five or more drinks for men. The researchers assessed these habits in 4,710 adults aged 18 to 45 during the 2011-2014 U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys.
- 25.1 percent of men reported binge drinking more than 12 times per year, compared to 11.8 percent of women. Twenty-nine percent of men and 25.1 percent of women said they binged once per month or less on average.
- Men who binge drank more than 12 times per year had an average systolic blood pressure of 121.8 mm Hg, compared to 119 for less frequent binge drinkers and 117.5 for non-binge drinkers. Binge drinkers’ total cholesterol was also 7.7-10.1 mg/dL higher than non-binge drinkers.
- Women didn’t have significantly different blood pressure or cholesterol levels based on alcohol consumption but showed a trend toward higher blood sugar with binge drinking.
“Implementing lifestyle interventions to reduce blood pressure in early adulthood may be an important strategy to prevent cardiovascular disease later in life,” Piano said. “Young adults should be screened and counseled about alcohol misuse, including binge drinking, and advised on how binge drinking may affect their cardiovascular health.”
The American Heart Association recommends moderate alcohol intake for people who choose to drink. This definition allows for an average of one to two standard drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. A drink is roughly 12 ounces of beer, four ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.
In a dose-response meta-analysis also published in JAHA, epidemiologist Michael Roerecke, PhD, and colleagues found no amount of alcohol was protective against hypertension in either sex. Previous studies have suggested a J-shaped statistical relationship between alcohol and cardiovascular disease, in which a limited amount of intake is better than none but higher levels are increasingly more dangerous.
University of Cambridge researcher Steven Bell, PhD, wrote in an accompanying editorial that it may be too late to recommend against binge drinking if hypertension is already present.
“Waiting until the problem is overt is suboptimal for at least two reasons: first, we are not reducing the collective time an individual is subjected to a state of elevated systolic blood pressure, and second, it may be too late if hypertension (which is usually asymptomatic in the initial stages) has already led to accelerated atherosclerosis or irreversible damage to major organs,” Bell wrote.
Despite those issues, a blanket recommendation against any alcohol consumption likely won’t do any good, Bell said. Plenty of people drink responsibly and for enjoyment, he noted, and public health professionals should avoid being preachy at the risk of alienating the people they are trying to reach.
“Perhaps rather than messages simply restating that drinking alcohol (or not drinking as it may be) is associated with an increased risk of disorder X, that can sometimes be perceived as condescending (and may lead to people disengaging), they might instead be packaged in a way that is easily interpretable and/or tailored to an individual, such as absolute differences in risk for someone of their age with otherwise similar characteristics,” Bell wrote.
“Ultimately, our job boils down to empowering an individual to make an informed decision about their level of alcohol intake and how this may influence their long‐ and short‐term health through transparent communication.”