“Ours is the first study to point to a mechanism through which a lifestyle factor can acutely change the electrical properties of the heart to increase the chance of an arrhythmia,” said study author Dr. Gregory Marcus, the associate chief of cardiology for research at the University of California, San Francisco.
The research on atrial fibrillation, published Wednesday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Clinical Electrophysiology, was unique because it was a randomized, double-blinded clinical study — considered the “gold standard” in research.
Marcus and his team put 100 heart patients with diagnosed AFib — the most common life-threatening heart-rhythm disorder — under anesthesia and then injected them with enough booze to bring their blood alcohol level to .08% — just above the legal limit in the United States.
The change they saw was startling: Alcohol appeared to immediately affect the heart’s natural recovery period in a way that could trigger an atrial fibrillation event.
“The electrical changes we observed in the pulmonary veins … would enhance both the chance that atrial fibrillation will occur immediately, and would be maintained,” Marcus said.
“It is a first-in-human demonstration of the immediate effects of alcohol, directly on the heart,” said Dr. Marco Perez, director of the Inherited Cardiac Arrhythmia Clinic at Stanford University Medical Center, who was not involved in the research.
“This study, however, does not address the question of whether or not moderate drinking is ‘good or bad’ for the heart, particularly in the long-term,” Marcus added. “It merely helps us understand the possible mechanisms behind the observations that people who drink have higher rates of arrhythmias.”
A growing concern
AFib is an irregular heartbeat often described by many sufferers as a “quiver,” “flutter” or “flip-flop” of the heart in the chest.
It can lead to blood clots, heart failure and other heart-related complications.
“It also can increase the risk for heart attack, for dementia, for kidney disease. All of those things are likely long term risks,” Marcus said.
“Age is one of the most important risk factors, so with the aging of the population it’s becoming more common,” Marcus said.
The epidemic of obesity is also contributing to the growing numbers, along with other risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, smoking and yes, drinking alcohol.
“There’s a long history now of evidence that alcohol may…