New Risk Found for Men Who Drink Heavily: Arterial Stiffness

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Young Israelis out drinking at the Tel Aviv Port, in 2007.
Young Israelis out drinking in Tel Aviv. The question is what “moderate” and “heavy” are, when it comes to imbibing.Credit: Ilan Assayag

The good news for drinkers is that imbibing in moderation is associated with reduced risk for cardiovascular disease. The bad news is that heavy, long-term use of alcohol has exactly the opposite effect in men, a new study shows.

Men who drink heavily over time suffer premature ageing of arterial walls. They become stiff and are less efficient at transporting blood, explains the paper published Monday in the Journal of the American Heart Association. No such effect was found in women, however.

How alcohol ages blood-vessel walls is not clear, nor is why women are spared.

“It’s been suggested alcohol intake may increase high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels – the good cholesterol – or decrease platelet stickiness,” speculates Dr. Darragh O’Neill of University College London, who lead the study. “Conversely, heavier alcohol intake may activate certain enzymes that would lead to collagen accumulation, which could, in turn, exacerbate the rate of arterial stiffening.”

Kicking the habit may not help. Examining subjects' drinking habit over 25 years, and excluding men with a history of heart disease from the study, the scientists found that former drinkers still had a higher probability of arterial stiffness compared with moderately indulging peers.

The question is what “moderate” and “heavy” are. At what point does alcohol start to stiffen arteries? That too remains to be seen. But the trend is clear.

The American Heart Association defines moderate alcohol consumption as one to two drinks per day for men, and one per day for women (men are typically bigger than women, have less body fat and more alcohol dehydrogenase, the enzyme that breaks down the alcohol in our bodies, rendering men more tolerant of alcohol). A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine (half a glass), or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits. More than that is heavy drinking.

It bears noting that the subjects in the new study were a motley bunch. At their initial consumption assessment, participants ranged in age from their 30s to their 50s. Most didn’t smoke but three-quarters didn’t meet government-recommended exercise guidelines, and 10 percent were diabetic.

Aside from stiff arteries, heavy drinking exacerbates other physical risks, including high blood pressure, obesity, stroke and certain cancers including breast and liver tumors – nearly 4 percent of all cancer is thought to be attributable to alcohol.

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