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Moderate alcohol use linked to heart chamber damage, atrial fibrillation in new study

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Do you like to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner? Well, if you are counting on its heart benefits while you enjoy your sips, then this piece of research may worry you. A recent research study by UC San Francisco investigators have found that the structure of the heart is changed by even moderate consumption of alcohol in ways that enhances the risk of atrial fibrillation.

Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm disturbance in the world. It is characterized by rapid and irregular beating. Typically, it starts with brief periods of abnormal beating and over time it becomes longer and constant. Some people also experience heart palpitations, fainting, shortness of breath, or chest pain along with it.

Gregory Marcus, MD, endowed professor of atrial fibrillation research at UCSF and senior author of the study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association opined that there is growing evidence that points that alcohol even in moderate amounts may be a risk for atrial fibrillation. However, the exact mechanism by which alcohol eventually leads to atrial fibrillation is still unknown.


It is known that atrial fibrillation is a risk factor for stroke. It causes irregular pumping of blood and that sets the stage for blood clots – which can travel to the brain and cause stroke.

As a part of the study, the data from more than 5000 adults were collected over several years in the Framingham Heart Study was analyzed. This data includes echocardiograms, medical history and self reported alcohol intake. The participants in the study all in the age group of 40 to 60 and are mostly white. They reported of having just over a drink per day. It was noted that atrial fibrillation in the group was 8.4 cases per 1000 people per year which translates to 8 cases of atrial fibrillation per 100 people in a year. If we increase another drink per day, the risk increases by 5% every year. Another finding of the study states with every additional drink per day, the left atrium enlarges by .16 millimeter.  This fact highlights a possible site of damage in the heart caused by alcohol consumption.

The relationship between alcohol and heart is complex and the findings of the new study shed some light on it to help us understand it better remarked Marcus. Previous researches have revealed that moderate drinking can reduce the risk of heart attack while increasing the risk of atrial fibrillation. Marcus and his team of researchers had published a study earlier this year analyzing the hospital admissions in dry and wet counties of Texas. In their study they found that patients in counties permitting alcohol sales were more likely to have atrial fibrillation but less likely to have heart attacks and congestive heart failure. Atrial fibrillation is gradually growing in importance as the success in preventing heart attack in increasing

Another pattern that has been noticed by UCSF’s Health eHeart Study is that people who believe alcohol is good for the heart tend to drink more. Marcus, who is also a practicing cardiologist, said that he constantly tells his patients that there are various forms of heart diseases and not all are related to heart attacks. He also added that alcohol has properties to protect as well as to harm the heart and it is likely that they likely operate through different mechanisms and vary from person to person. Through their research the group of investigators seeks to decipher these mechanisms, which will help designing therapies for heart conditions and enable physicians to give personalized advice to patients.

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