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Heavy Drinking Increases Risk of Atrial Fibrillation

Scientists Agree on Heavy, But Not Moderate Consumption

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Updated September 29, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Heavy alcohol consumption can increase the risk of atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that can lead to stroke.

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Many researchers agree that heavy alcohol consumption and binge drinking increases the risk of atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that can lead to stroke in some patients. But scientists do not agree on the effect moderate drinking has on cardiac arrhythmia.

An analysis of the current research by members of The International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research compared the findings of 14 studies on alcohol consumption and the risks of developing atrial fibrillation.

What Is Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is the most common cardiac arrhythmia, found in an estimated 2.2 million Americans. When atrial fibrillation occurs, the heart's two upper chambers, known as the atria, begin to quiver instead of beating normally. As a result, blood is not pumped completely out of them into the ventricles, the two large chambers of the heart.

Because the blood is not being pumped properly, it can pool in the atria and begin to clot. If the clot then is pumped into the ventricles and then to the brain, it can cause a stroke. An estimated 15% of all strokes occur in people with atrial fibrillation.

Is Atrial Fibrillation Life-Threatening?

Generally, atrial fibrillation itself is not considered life-threatening, but if left untreated, can result in palpitations, chest pain, fainting, or congestive heart failure. The greatest risk, however, is for stroke. People with atrial fibrillation have up to seven times greater risk of having a stroke.

Holiday Heart Syndrome

Heavy drinking or binge drinking has long been known to cause incidents of atrial fibrillation. It has been called the "Holiday Heart Syndrome" because it can occur around the holidays when people who do not usually drink may overindulge.

For more than 30 years, research has linked heavy and binge drinking to an increased risk of atrial fibrillation, among other health risks. Probably the largest study was the Danish Diet, Cancer and Health Study of 22,528 men and 25,421 women over a six-year period, which showed an even higher risk for men.

How About Light to Moderate Drinking?

Where the researchers disagree, however, is in the relationship between light or moderate drinking and the risk of atrial fibrillation. Although there are some studies that have shown a link between the risk and drinking even two standard drinks, most researchers have found no increased risk for those who drink within the recommended guidelines for moderate alcohol consumption.

On the other hand, there are some studies that found no relationship between atrial fibrillation and any level of alcohol consumption, but those findings were discounted by the alcohol forum group because they run contrary to dozens of other studies.

"The consistent message is that there is a difference between heavy and moderate use of alcohol, between binge drinking and a healthy pattern of drinking, and inherent health risk," the authors wrote.

Sources:

Kodama, S. et. al. "Alcohol Consumption and Risk of Atrial Fibrillation." Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Jan. 2011

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. "What Is Atrial Fibrillation?" October 2009.

American Heart Association. Atrial Fibrillation. Accessed March 2011.

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