Risk factors that bust alcohol’s heart health benefits

Do you have a nightly cocktail because it’s good for you heart? If you do, I have bad news… it may not be as heart healthy as you thought.

In fact, the research on the heart benefits of drinking are as mixed as your martini. A few years back, a 24-year study from Harvard researchers said moderate drinking — seven or fewer drinks per week — can reduce your risk of heart failure.

And a study just this year from researchers at the University of California found that people who live in “wet” counties in Texas where alcohol is available are less likely to have heart attacks and congestive heart failure than people in “dry” counties where it’s not. But there’s a catch….

These researchers also found that people with easy access to alcohol had a greater risk for atrial fibrillation (AFib), a disease where your heart beats irregularly. And this connection between alcohol and AFib wasn’t a fluke…

Another recent study conducted by University of California researchers found that even moderate drinking can cause your left atrium to get bigger… which can lead to atrial fibrillation… which can lead to a stroke.

That’s a chain of events you’d probably prefer to avoid. So should you give up alcohol altogether?

Well, the answer is different for everybody. If you’re healthy as a horse and living a clean lifestyle, a nightly drink probably won’t hurt your heart. It may even help it.

But if you have one or more risk factors for atrial fibrillation, it’s probably safer to abstain. According to researchers, even having one drink per day increases your risk of atrial fibrillation by five percent. Here are some AFib risk factors to consider before deciding whether or not to imbibe:

  • Age (If you’re over 60 you’re more at-risk)
  • Diabetes
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Coronary artery disease
  • A history of heart attacks or open heart surgery
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Valve problems or congenital heart defects
  • An untreated atrial flutter (another type of abnormal heart rhythm)
  • Thyroid disease
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Sleep apnea
  • Serious illness or infection

Also, keep in mind that alcohol isn’t great for your health in other ways… even if you drink in moderation. Earlier this year, a review of 10 years of research determined that alcohol causes seven different types of cancer. And, in the words of researchers, the risk is “considerable” even if you only drink a nightly cocktail.

  1. W. Dukes, et al. “Access to alcohol and heart disease among patients in hospital: observational cohort study using differences in alcohol sales laws.” The British Medical Journal, 2016; 353.
  2. D. McManus, et al. “Alcohol Consumption, Left Atrial Diameter, and Atrial Fibrillation.” Journal of the American Heart Association, 2016.
  3. “Risk Factors for Atrial Fibrillation (AFib).” Heart Rhythm Society. http://www.hrsonline.org. Retrieved September 15, 2016.


Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.