Nov. 23, 2010 -- Heavy drinking or binge drinking a couple of days a week may be worse for the heart than drinking a moderate amount of alcohol throughout the week, new research indicates.
Researchers in France and in Belfast, Northern Ireland, say that middle-aged men in both places drink about the same amount of alcohol per week.
But in Belfast, people tend to go on binges, drinking in one or two days about the same amount of alcohol that French men drink in a week.
Alcohol Use in Belfast and France
Jean-Bernard Ruidavets, MD, of Toulouse University, and colleagues studied alcohol drinking patterns of 9,758 men in France and Belfast over a 10-year period. For the study, scientists divided participants between the ages of 50 and 59 without ischemic heart disease into four distinct groups -- never drinkers, former drinkers, regular drinkers, and binge drinkers.
Drinkers were interviewed and completed questionnaires about how much alcohol they drank on a weekly and daily basis, and also about the type of beverage they drank.
The researchers also gathered cardiovascular risk factors from the participants, including level of physical activity, blood pressure, and waist circumference, a measure of belly fat.
Men Who Drink Heavily Have Nearly Twice the Risk of Heart Attack
Binge drinking was defined as excessive alcohol consumption, or the equivalent of four or five drinks in a short period of time such as a weekend day.
“We found that alcohol consumption patterns differed radically in the two countries,” the researchers say. “In Belfast, most men’s alcohol intake was on one day of the weekend, Saturday, whereas in the three French centers [Lille, Strasbourg, Toulouse] studied, alcohol consumption was spread more evenly throughout the entire week.”
The Health Risks of Bingeing
The prevalence of binge drinking was nearly 20 times higher in Belfast than in the French areas, and was associated with double the risk of ischemic heart disease, compared with regular drinkers, the researchers say.
The authors say another reason for a higher risk of heart disease in Belfast might be that people tend to drink beer and liquor more than they do wine.
In France, wine, which has been shown to protect against heart disease when drunk in moderation, is the alcoholic drink of choice.
Ruidavets and his research team say their findings have important health implications, especially because binge drinking among younger people is on the rise in Mediterranean countries.
“The alcohol industry takes every opportunity to imbue alcohol consumption with the positive image, emphasizing its beneficial effects on ischemic heart disease risk, but people also need to be informed about the health consequences of heavy drinking,” the authors write.
Annie Britton of University College London says in an accompanying editorial that binge drinking doesn’t just increase the risk of heart disease but that it’s also linked to such dire health problems as cirrhosis of the liver and several types of cancer.
In addition, heavy drinking causes social problems, too, she says, and health messages aimed at middle-aged men should stress the idea that protective effects of alcohol may not apply to them if they go on drinking binges.
Britton says young people “are unlikely to take much notice of the findings about patterns of alcohol consumption and risk of heart disease at a time when their risk of heart disease is low.”
Rather, she says, young people are more likely to respond to anti-binge drinking messages that focus on the risk of alcohol poisoning, injuries, assaults, and “regretful risky sexual encounters.”
She says the “take-home message” of the Ruidavets study is that heavy drinking is bad for the heart. People don’t normally drink for health benefits, but reports of a positive impact from drinking may be all the excuse some people need to drink heavily. She says all heavy drinkers should be reminded that they are risking diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver, chronic pancreatitis, and certain cancers. The study and editorial are published online in bmj.com.