Even Moderate Drinking Can Be Risky for Heart Patients

Excessive Alcohol Consumption Is Not the Only Danger

Man With Nurse
Men a Greater Risk for AFib. © Getty Images

You may have heard that drinking a glass of red wine daily can improve the health of your heart, but if you have already been diagnosed with heart problems, you might want to avoid alcohol altogether.

It has long been scientifically established that excessive alcohol use is a major risk factor for atrial fibrillation, sometimes called ?AFib for short. The American Osteopathic Association has warned patients for years to avoid excessive drinking because "an excessive amount of alcohol can cause episodes of atrial fibrillation."

Now, researchers have found that even moderate alcohol consumption can increase the risk of atrial fibrillation in people with heart disease.

Those findings come from a study of more than 30,000 people with a history of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Lead author Dr. Koon Teo of McMaster University in Ontario studied 30,433 individuals 55 years or older from 40 different countries involved in the ONTARGET or TRANSCEND trials. All had a history of cardiovascular disease or advanced diabetes with organ damage.

Increase Risk of Atrial Fibrillation

For the purposes of the study, moderate drinking was defined as 2 drinks a day — or 1 to 14 drinks a week for women — and up to 3 drinks a day — or 1 to 21 drinks a week — for men.

Binge drinking was classified as 5 or more drinks in one day, whether the individual was usually a low-, moderate- or high-level alcohol drinker.

"Moderate to high alcohol intake was associated with an increased incidence of atrial fibrillation among people aged 55 or older with cardiovascular disease or diabetes," Teo said.

"Among moderate drinkers, the effect of binge drinking on the risk of atrial fibrillation was similar to that of habitual heavy drinking."

Binge Drinking Unhealthy for Everyone

Moderate drinking in healthy people does not increase the risk of atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm, caused by extremely rapid and chaotic electrical impulses generated in the heart's two upper chambers.

But for those with heart disease or advanced diabetes, even moderate drinking can increase the risk.

Binge drinking can cause atrial fibrillation in otherwise healthy people, other studies have found.

The Ontario study also found that binge drinking caused increased atrial fibrillation for all drinkers in the study, whether they were low, moderate or high-level drinkers.

Risk Is Considerable

"Because drinking moderate quantities of alcohol was common in our study (36.6% of the participants), our findings suggest that the effect of increased alcohol consumption, even in moderate amounts, on the risk of atrial fibrillation among patients with existing cardiovascular disease may be considerable," Teo said in a news release.

The researchers suggested that recommending one glass of wine a day for patients already diagnosed with cardiovascular disease may not be the best advice. Atrial fibrillation is not life-threatening itself, but can lead to more serious problems, such as stroke and heart failure in people with heart disease.

Alcohol Not the Only Risk Factor

Of course, drinking alcohol is not the only risk factor for developing atrial fibrillation. Others include:

  • People with hypertension
  • People with diabetes
  • People with lung disease, pulmonary embolism, emphysema or asthma

Research has shown that other factors and conditions can increase the risk of AFib, including:

  • Men are more likely to develop atrial fibrillation.
  • Women, however, or more likely to have a longer-term risk for premature death.
  • Older people are at greater risk.
  • Thyroid disorders can increase risks.
  • Smoking cigarettes increases risks.
  • Risks increase with stimulant use, including caffeine.

How You Can Reduce the AFib Risks

The American Heart Association suggests the following steps to reduce your risk of developing atrial fibrillation:


American Heart Association. "Understand Your Risk for Arrhythmia." Conditions: Arrhythmia. Reviewed Oct. 2014.

American Osteopathic Association. "Recognizing an Irregular Heart Rhythm." Osteopathic Medicinie and Your Health Accessed 2015.

Liang, Y, et al. "Alcohol consumption and the risk of incident atrial fibrillation among people with cardiovascular disease." Canadian Medical Association Journal 1 October 2012.

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