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Posted: December 16, 2008

2 Drinks a Day Won't Boost Irregular Heart Beat Risk in Women: Report

Having up to two alcoholic drinks per day do not appear to be at increased risk of irregular heart beat in women, but drinking more than that amount is linked with a higher risk, researchers say.

Studies assessing the effects of regular alcohol consumption on the risk of irregular heart beat, technically known as atrial fibrillation, have provided inconsistent results, with several studies finding significant associations between moderate to high amounts of alcohol intake and increased risks of atrial fibrillation among men, but not among women. However, these studies were not large enough to detect significant associations among women, according to background information published as part of a report in the journal JAMA.


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Dr. David Conen, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston and University Hospital in Basel, Switzerland, and colleagues analyzed data from a completed randomized controlled trial involving 34,715 women participating in the Women’s Health Study, to assess the effects of regular alcohol consumption on the risk of atrial fibrillation.


The participants were older than 45 years and had no irregular heart beat at the start of the study. They were followed from 1993 to October 2006. Alcohol consumption was assessed via questionnaires at the beginning of the trial and four years later. Answers were grouped into four categories: 0 drinks per day, greater than 0 and less than 1, 1 or more and less than 2, and 2 or more drinks per day. Irregular heart beat was self-reported on the yearly questionnaires and subsequently confirmed by electrocardiogram and medical record review.


During a mid-test follow-up at 12.4 years, there were 653 confirmed cases of new atrial fibrillation. Among 15,370 women consuming no alcohol, there were 294 reports of irregular heart beat (1.9%); for 15,758 women consuming less than one drink per day, there were 284 reports (1.8%); for 2,228 women reporting one to two drinks per day, there were 35 irregular heart beat reports (1.6%); and for 1,359 women consuming two or more drinks per day, there were 40 atrial fibrillation events (2.9%).


The spike that occurred above two drinks per day led researchers to identify up to two drinks as a safer level than more alcoholic drinks.


“In the present study, alcohol consumption of up to two drinks per day was not associated with an increased risk of incident atrial fibrillation among initially healthy, middle-aged women. In contrast, the small group of women who consumed two or more alcoholic beverages per day had a 1.6-fold greater risk for atrial fibrillation relative to non-drinking women,” the authors reported, adding: “While this finding needs to be interpreted with some caution because of the small number of women in some subgroups, it supports a possible threshold effect in the relationship between alcohol consumption and risk of atrial fibrillation among women.”

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