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American College of Cardiology

New study finds binge drinkers demonstrate risk factors for heart disease.

Binge drinking may increase risk of heart disease, new study finds

by Rebecca Halleck
Apr 24, 2013

College-aged binge drinkers may develop heart-disease risk factors that previously had been associated with long-term alcoholics, a team of Chicago-based researchers has found.

Young adults studied showed some of the same physical changes as older adults with hypertension, high cholesterol and alcoholism, according to researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago who published the study Tuesday.

Although the number of participants was small, “the results were significant,” said Mariann Piano, Ph.D. and a co-author of the study.

“The abnormalities were found in the absence of hypertension and high-cholesterol—two factors we know to be risk factors for heart disease,” Piano said.

Researchers monitored the arteries of 19 high-risk drinkers and 17 non-drinkers. They found that the group of drinkers had impaired function in two of the main cell types controlling blood flow.

Methodology of the study and some of its findings:

-- There were abnormalities noted in the endothelium layer of the binge drinkers’ arteries. These abnormalities could indicate decreases in the release of nitric oxide. Among other biological functions, nitric oxide signals smooth muscles cells in the arteries to relax, regulating and increasing blood flow.

-- Researchers gave binge drinkers nitroglycerin to increase nitric oxide, which should have caused the smooth muscle cells to behave normally despite the malfunctioning of the endothelium layer. However, they found that the smooth muscle cells were not responding as predicted.

-- These same indicators, impaired endothelium function and unresponsiveness at the smooth muscle cell layer, may indicate early blood vessel damage and atherosclerosis (accumulation of lipids in, and consequently hardening of, the arteries).

-- Finally, the impairments found in the young binge drinkers are equivalent to those in adults who consume six drinks per day for more than eight years.

“We think that these collectively could be a predictor of future cardiovascular events,” says Piano. “Young people must start taking better care of themselves.”

The accepted definition of binge or high-risk drinking is five drinks in two hours for men and four drinks for women.

“I’m a 230-pound person. When I drank it was much more severe than that,” says Joe Principe, an industrial designer who graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2012. He estimates that at the height of his college drinking he would binge drink two nights a week, “I would guess I had 15, maybe more, on a longer night out.”

High-risk drinking is a growing concern for educators and administrators such as Lisa Currie, director of health promotion and wellness at Northwestern University. “I think the biggest challenge about this work is there’s no cookie-cutter approach. There is no magic bullet,” Currie said.

“We may be able to see what other campuses are doing and what’s working for them, but that same approach might not work here.”

Northwestern enlists an ever-changing cocktail of educational programs, Brief Alcohol Screenings and Intervention for College Students, academic rigor, enforcement policies, and risk-management training for Greek organizations on campus to curb alcohol abuse, according to Currie.

“All of these things have to work in concert, in order for it to be effective,” Currie says. “This is not a top-down approach. Students have to be at the table as well. If you’re doing it right it’s a conversation.”

Despite the study’s findings, Principe isn’t too concerned. “I never had a delusion that alcohol was great for me,” he says. “I think everyone should have one or two bad things they do that allows them to not go crazy.”