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Excessive Alcohol & Irregular Heartbeat

Holiday parties and New Year’s celebrations are often occasions for raising a glass of good cheer — but when toasting turns to excessive alcohol intake you could be putting yourself at risk for “holiday heart”: uncomfortable and downright dangerous disruptions in heart rhythms that can afflict even those with no other symptoms of cardiac disease.

Most folks know that heavy drinking can damage your liver and your brain — but fewer are aware that it can injure the heart muscle and electrical fibers, increasing your risk of cardiac failure. To wit: a 2004 study published in Archives of Internal Medicine compared alcohol intake with incidence of atrial fibrillation among 47,000 participants and found that men who drank the most (the equivalent of five medium-strength 12 oz. beers a day) were 46% more likely to suffer irregular heartbeat compared to those who drank the least. A more recent 2008 Harvard study found that women who had more than two alcoholic beverages a day were 60% more likely to experience atrial fibrillation.

Such cautionary findings fly in the face of conventional media coverage of drinking and heart health which emphasizes the modest benefits of moderate intake over the serious risks of excessive intake. Years of heavy drinking can permanently impair memory, widen your waistline and increase your risk of stroke and breast cancer. Women and seniors may be at particular risk, since the former experience faster dependence and the ability to metabolize alcohol diminishes with age.

Published December 1, 2009

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