Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol ‘may help protect the heart’

·3-min read

Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may help protect the heart by dampening stress-related signals in the brain, research suggests.

US scientists found that when compared to being teetotal or indulging in excessive levels of alcohol, moderate drinking – equivalent to one drink for women and two for men per day – is associated with a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

The preliminary research, which is being presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 70th Annual Scientific Session and has not yet been published in a journal, is based on a healthcare survey of more than 53,000 people.

However, the scientists caution that their findings should not encourage alcohol use but pave the way for other forms of therapy to reduce stress such as exercise or yoga.

Dr Kenechukwu Mezue, a fellow in nuclear cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital and the study’s lead author, said: “The current study suggests that moderate alcohol intake beneficially impacts the brain-heart connection.

“However, alcohol has several important side effects, including an increased risk of cancer, liver damage and dependence, so other interventions with better side effect profiles that beneficially impact brain-heart pathways are needed.”

In the UK, moderate drinking means consuming seven to 14 units of alcohol a week, equivalent to six pints of beer or seven glasses of wine.

For the study, the scientists looked at data from 53,064 participants in the US who self-reported their alcohol intake as low (less than one drink per week), moderate (one to 14 drinks) or high (more than 14).

Around 15% (7,905) of the participants experienced a major adverse cardiovascular event, with 17% in the low alcohol intake group and 13% in the moderate intake group.

Some of these patients underwent brain scans to measure activities in the regions associated with stress, such as the amygdala and the frontal cortex.

Findings showed that compared with low or no alcohol intake, those who reported drinking in moderation had a 20% lower chance of experiencing a major cardiovascular event and lower stress-related brain activity.

Dr Mezue said: “We found that stress-related activity in the brain was higher in non-drinkers when compared with people who drank moderately, while people who drank excessively (more than 14 drinks per week) had the highest level of stress-related brain activity.

“The thought is that moderate amounts of alcohol may have effects on the brain that can help you relax, reduce stress levels and, perhaps through these mechanisms, lower the incidence of cardiovascular disease.”

However, Dr Mezue and his team said their study is limited due to the self-reporting of alcohol intake and further research is needed to show that reductions in stress-related brain activity are the direct result of moderate alcohol consumption.

Another preliminary study, also presented at the American College of Cardiology conference, showed that young and middle-aged adults who reported severe psychological distress – such as depression or anxiety – after recovering from a heart attack were more than twice as likely to suffer a second cardiac event within five years, compared with those experiencing only mild distress.

The findings from the observational study are based on health outcomes in 283 heart attack survivors aged 18 to 61.

Dr Mariana Garcia, a cardiology fellow at Emory University in Atlanta and the study’s lead author, said: “Our findings suggest that cardiologists should consider the value of regular psychological assessments, especially among younger patients.

“Equally importantly, they should explore treatment modalities for ameliorating psychological distress in young patients after a heart attack, such as meditation, relaxation techniques and holistic approaches, in addition to traditional medical therapy and cardiac rehabilitation.”