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Drinkers Ignore Heart-Healthy Behaviors

It’s a well-established fact that excessive alcohol consumption can damage your cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) health and increase your risks for several life-threatening conditions. Failure to follow certain lifestyle recommendations can also increase your odds of developing cardiovascular problems. In a study published in June 2014 in the journal Substance Abuse, a team of American researchers evaluated the likelihood that people who habitually drink varying amounts of alcohol will fail to maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle. These researchers found that as your drinking levels rise, your chances of staying proactively heart-healthy go down.

Excessive Drinking and Heart Health

Excessive alcohol intake can harm your cardiovascular health by leading to such problems as an increase in your blood pressure levels and increases in your levels of a common type of blood-borne fat called triglyceride. Overconsumption of alcohol can also lead to significant weight increases and boost your odds of developing cardiovascular problems related to obesity and/or the blood sugar disorder diabetes. Specific ailments linked to a regular pattern of heavy drinking or periodic participation in drunkenness-inducing binge drinking include a dangerously irregular heartbeat (cardiac arrhythmia), strokes, heart muscle disease (cardiomyopathy) and sudden stoppage of heart function (cardiac arrest). Heavy drinking is characterized by daily or weekly alcohol intake that exceeds public health guidelines for light or moderate consumption. Binge drinking is characterized by the consumption of enough alcohol to get drunk (i.e., reach a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher) in two hours or less.

Heart-Healthy Behaviors

Doctors and public health officials commonly recommend a series of steps you can take to maintain good cardiovascular health and reduce your chances of developing serious heart- or blood vessel-related problems. Main recommendations include quitting smoking or never initiating tobacco use, maintaining an active exercise routine, reducing your intake of salt and otherwise maintaining a heart-friendly diet, keeping your weight within healthy limits or losing weight if necessary, getting restful sleep on a regular basis and undergoing regular checkups to assess your cardiovascular function.

Impact of Heavy Alcohol Use

Regular consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol can interfere with your heart health in a number of ways. For instance, people who drink heavily are fairly likely to smoke cigarettes and have symptoms of nicotine addiction. Heavy drinkers also often fail to maintain sound dietary practices, and in some cases, start substituting alcohol for food. In addition, heavy drinkers often lead relatively sedentary lives that don’t include regular exercise.

In the study published in Substance Abuse, researchers from several U.S. institutions – including the University of Washington, the Group Health Research Institute and Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences – used an assessment of 11,927 men receiving outpatient care from facilities run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to explore the connection between alcohol intake and the odds of leading a heart-healthy lifestyle. All of the men involved in the project had high blood pressure. With the help of responses gathered from questionnaires sent through the mail, the researchers assigned each participant to an alcohol intake category. A total of five categories were established: people who don’t drink, people who only drink in small amounts, people who mildly abuse alcohol, people who moderately abuse alcohol and people who heavily or severely abuse alcohol.

After establishing the alcohol intake categories, the researchers compared the level of involvement in heart-healthy lifestyle practices among the members of each group. Five practices were included for consideration: not using salt, keeping body weight within healthy limits, participating in exercise, staying away from nicotine/tobacco and combining the use of all four of these lifestyle adjustments. The researchers concluded that, as alcohol intake levels rose, the study participants were increasingly less likely to stay away from salt, maintain a healthy body weight, stay away from nicotine/tobacco or combine all four of the heart-healthy practices. The researchers did not establish a clear connection between increasing levels of alcohol use and an isolated decline in exercise participation. This was true largely because the mildly abusive drinkers enrolled in the study exercised more often than the non-drinkers.

The study’s authors chose to frame the results of their work narrowly. Specifically, they note that men with high blood pressure receiving outpatient care from the Veterans Administration typically experience a decline in heart-healthy lifestyle when their average level of alcohol intake rises. They also note that doctors who treat men with high blood pressure should pay special attention to their patients’ drinking patterns.

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