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Mass General Study Challenges Theory that Alcohol Consumption Benefits Heart Health

In This Article

  • Previous research has theorized that light alcohol consumption benefits heart health
  • A large cohort study, led by Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute, now challenges this theory
  • By analyzing genetic variant data from the UK Biobank and Mass General Brigham Biobank, the team discovered an exponential relationship between alcohol intake and cardiovascular disease risk
  • Heart health benefits observed in light to moderate drinkers may be attributed to other lifestyle factors

A common theory emerged from previous observational research which suggested that light alcohol consumption benefits heart health. A new study led by a team of researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard now challenges this theory.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, was led by Krishna G. Aragam, MD, MS, preventative cardiologist at Mass General, and Kiran J. Biddinger of the Broad Institute. The team's findings suggest that heart-related health benefits found in light to moderate drinkers may actually be attributed to other lifestyle factors.

The team studied a large cohort of 371,463 adults from the UK Biobank, with an average age of 57 and an average 9.2 alcoholic drinks consumed per week. This study utilized Mendelian randomization, an advanced technique that analyzes genetic variants to determine the causal effect of an exposure or outcome based on observation, to determine whether light alcohol consumption causes a person to be protected against cardiovascular disease, or if other factors are at play.

Their initial findings were consistent with previous research. Participants with genetic variants that predicted higher alcohol consumption were more likely to consume greater amounts of alcohol, as well as have a higher risk of hypertension and coronary artery disease.

The genetic analyses revealed differences in cardiovascular risk across the levels of alcohol consumption. A progression from zero to seven drinks per week had a minimal increase in risk, but progressing from seven to 14 weekly drinks had a much higher risk increase, and even more so when consuming 21 drinks or more per week. The findings also indicated a higher risk of heart disease even at levels deemed "low-risk"—less than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women—by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The team observed that light to moderate drinkers tended to lead healthier lifestyles than those who abstain from drinking, including more physical activity, greater vegetable intake and less smoking. These lifestyle factors significantly lowered any benefits associated with alcohol consumption.

An additional analysis of 30,716 adults from the Mass General Brigham Biobank supported the discovery of an exponential relationship between alcohol intake and cardiovascular risk. These results suggest that reducing the consumption of alcohol could provide substantial health benefits for heavier drinkers. In order to reduce cardiovascular disease risk in all individuals, regardless of one's level of alcohol consumption, a reduction in alcohol intake is recommended.

Learn more about the Cardiovascular Disease Prevention Center

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