Light Drinking May Be Safe After Heart Attack

Most Heart Attack Survivors Can Have an Occasional Drink Without Risking Heart Failure, Researchers Say

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on June 01, 2004
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June 1, 2004 -- Wine, beer, margarita, martini: An alcoholic drink now and then probably won't hurt a heart attack survivor -- even those at higher risk for heart failure, a new study shows. Just don't go overboard, researchers advise.

"Light to moderate alcohol consumption appears to be safe in these patients. So if someone was to ask me whether they should stop drinking or whether they could continue to have an occasional drink, I'd say it appears to be safe to have an occasional drink, but that moderation, for now, is key," says researcher David Aguilar, MD, with the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

His paper appears in the June 2 issue Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

It's been controversial among researchers. Some studies have shown that light-to-moderate drinking can protect people with heart disease from having a fatal heart attack. However, other studies have not shown a protective effect.

Many people who have had a heart attack are at risk for a life-threatening condition called heart failure. Should they drink to reduce the risk of another heart attack? Or does drinking alcohol make heart failure worse?

To complicate matters, heavy drinking may cause heart failure -- a condition that occurs when the heart no longer pumps blood as efficiently as it should. Over time, the condition becomes gradually worse and leads to weakness, fatigue, and fluid build-up in the lungs and elsewhere in the body.

But what about light drinking? That's the question that patients across the country have asked their doctors. That's what Auguilar's group investigated.

His researchers analyzed two years of data on 864 women. All were heart attack survivors and all were at high risk of heart failure because their heart wasn't pumping well (less than 40% of blood out of the heart). At various points during the study, the women provided information on their drinking habits.

When the study period ended, researchers found:

  • Light to moderate drinkers (one to 10 drinks per week) had no greater risk of developing heart failure than nondrinkers.
  • Heavy drinking (>10 drinks per week) also did not increase heart failure risk. However, the number of heavy drinkers in this study was too small to be reliable, researchers note.
  • Light to moderate drinking had no significant effect -- either beneficial or harmful -- in increasing death rate or rate of having another heart attack, writes Aguilar.

Heavy drinking is always discouraged, he explains. However, "the totality of evidence suggests that light to moderate alcohol consumption is not associated with altered risk of developing chronic heart failure ... following a [heart attack]," he writes.

SOURCE: Aguilar, D. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, June 2, 2004; vol 43: pp 2015-2021.