Men with a history of heavy drinking are more likely to have stiff walls in the arteries that supply blood to the heart, an important measure of heart risk, according to a recent study.
While lighter drinking may be linked to better heart health, heavy drinking is linked to worse heart health in both the short and long term, the researchers write in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
"Arterial stiffness is an important indicator of cardiovascular aging and is known to be strongly associated with cardiovascular disease and related mortality," said lead author Darragh O'Neill of University College London in England.
Stiff-walled arteries are strongly related to high blood pressure and coronary artery disease, among other diseases, O'Neill told Reuters Health by email.
To examine the link between long-term drinking and arterial stiffness, the study team used data on nearly 4,000 British government employees originally recruited between 1985 and 1988. Nearly three-quarters were male and most were white.
Every four to five years, participants reported on their drinking habits. And starting between 2007 and 2009, researchers measured their arterial stiffness every few years with a technique known as pulse wave velocity (PVW) estimation.
Compared to females, males had much higher rates of heavy drinking (defined as more than seven beers or glasses of wine per week or more than 14 shots of liquor) and stiffer arteries, both at the first measurement and at later assessments.
Men who were consistently heavy drinkers had higher initial measures of arterial stiffness than men who tended to drink moderately.
At the follow-up, men who had once been heavy drinkers showed greater increases in artery stiffness compared with consistently moderate drinkers.
In fact, while all groups saw an increase in artery stiffness over time, heavy drinking men were the only group to experience a significantly accelerated change.
"The risks (or any potential benefits of lighter alcohol consumption) of alcohol consumption need to be considered in a broader context than cardiovascular disease," said Lawrie Beilin, an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Western Australia who was not involved in the study.
Beilin said people often underestimate their own drinking and stressed that the stakes are high. In addition to heart problems, Beilin noted, drinking can increase the risk of common cancers like breast, colon, pancreatic, and throat cancer, even for more moderate drinkers.
"This is aside from aspects of heavier or intermittent alcohol effects on social behavior, road and other accidents and suicide," Beilin said by email.
"The most important implication," O'Neill said, "is that long-term consistently-heavy drinking can lead to increased risk of stiffened arteries, particularly amongst males, but also that male former drinkers are at risk of accelerated rates of arterial stiffness compared to moderate drinkers in early old age."