Arteries stiffen over time as a result of aging, but heavy alcohol drinking habits over a lifetime can accelerate arterial aging, especially in men. A new study from the American Heart Association led to this finding, in a study of nearly four thousand people.
Participants in this study were all between the ages of 30 and 50, with a majority of them being male and all having no known history of heart disease. Researchers examined the drinking habits over the past 25 years for each participant, most of whom did not meet recommended weekly exercise guidelines.
Then, they conducted a comparison between alcohol consumption and a quantifier called “carotid-femoral pulse wave artery velocity,” which describes the waves that pulse between the main arteries, found in the neck and thighs. The faster the waves are pulsing, the stiffer the arteries are.
They found that men are more likely to be heavy drinkers (and have stiffer arteries) than women, although the researchers plan to do more studies to confirm this result since a majority of the current study participants were men.
What does heavy drinking do to the arteries?
Arteries are naturally elastic to allow for easy blood flow, but heavy drinking can cause the arteries to stiffen as elastin fibers degenerate and stiffer collagen fibers take their place. This happens naturally with age, but heavy drinking, smoking, and rapid weight gain can accelerate the process. Arterial stiffness has subsequently become an important prognostic index for patients with hypertension.
Drinking habits vary, and heavy drinking is especially associated with these symptoms more so than moderate drinking, which is actually associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.
"It's been suggested alcohol intake may increase high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, the good cholesterol, or decrease platelet stickiness,” explained Darragh O’Neill, PhD. “Conversely, heavier alcohol intake may activate certain enzymes that would lead to collagen accumulation, which could, in turn, exacerbate the rate of arterial stiffening."
Defining moderate versus heavy drinking
Moderate drinking is usually defined as consumption of an average of one to two drinks per day for men, one drink per day for women, and heavy drinking is anything more than that. “One” drink is either 12 ounces of beer, four ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.
Heavy drinking over time can cause more than just premature aging of the arteries; heavy drinking can also increase the risk of alcohol addiction, cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, suicide, and accidents.
This study was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.