At least five million Americans have “atrial fibrillation.” We know this now, after long suspecting it was only around two million people. Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common cause of an irregular heart rhythm. When it strikes, the heart’s atria (northern parts) and ventricles (southern parts) beat wildly and out of sync with one another.
It is a dangerous condition, as you might imagine, and is more and more common among adults. It puts people at five times a greater risk of strokes, three times for heart failure, and two times for death. And British researchers have just found out that heavy drinkers who do not cut down on alcohol are at high risk for AF as well.
While scientists aren’t sure if heavy drinking is directly responsible for AF, it seems clear that if you drink a lot, your liver isn’t the only thing at risk. On a positive note, the study showed that reducing alcohol even a little bit can help your heart out considerably. The parallel was clear: drinking in moderation is safe, while drinking excessively puts you at risk at AF.
In the study, patients checking in at a special clinic in a London hospital told researchers how much alcohol they drank each week. They were then split into three groups:
1. Non-drinkers: completely abstained; 2. Moderate drinkers: up to seven pints of beer a week; 3. Heavy drinkers: greater than the moderate amount.
They found that about half the people who had AF were moderate drinkers, but half of those without AF were also moderate drinkers. This suggests no greater risk. That wasn’t the case for heavy drinkers: it was much higher among AF patients (27%) than among those without AF (17%).
Moreover, a heavy drinker raised his/her risk of AF by two percent for every half-pint consumed each week. Experts say this link might be part of the body’s “fight-or-flight” response. Or, alcohol raises the level of blood cholesterol. These are two of several theories.
If you enjoy your alcohol, keep watch for symptoms of AF, which disrupts the flow of blood in the body. Symptoms will include noticeable heart palpitations, shortness of breath, fatigue, and overall weakness. A stroke is the biggest sign, but of course you want to catch the problem before then.
The study had a clear message as well: cutting down on alcohol is almost sure to lower your risk of AF.