Drinking during young adulthood linked to blood vessels aging faster, heart disease

SOPHIA ANTIPOLIS, France — Drinking can often seem like a right of passage for adolescents moving into young adulthood. However, a new study reveals drinking may also put them on the highway to heart disease. Researchers have discovered a link between alcohol consumption as a young adult and aging blood vessels — which stiffens the arteries of the heart.

“There was some evidence of a graded increase with heavier usage, meaning that the more you drink, the greater the increase in arterial stiffness,” says study author Hugo Walford, a medical student at University College London, in a media release. “The relationship was not explained by other predisposing factors for heart disease, suggesting that risky behavior during this period has a direct effect on vascular health.”

Speeding up the aging process

As people age, their arteries naturally become less elastic and stiffen up. This increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Studies show that two habits in particular can speed up this process — smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol. Specifically, both smoking and drinking as a teenager shows a link to having stiffer arteries.

Researchers say since these habits often start during young adulthood, the team focused on changes in artery stiffness between ages 17 and 24. Study authors examined 1,655 participants in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents And Children (ALSPAC) during their project. They measured drinking and smoking habits at both of these ages.

Walford and researchers split alcohol consumption into three categories; those who never drink, those having four or fewer beverages on a typical drinking day (medium), and those having over five drinks on these days (heavy). Smoking habits were also split into similar groups, including non-smokers, past smokers who quit, medium (less than 10 cigarettes a day), and high (over 10 day).

The study used a non-invasive technique called carotid-femoral pulse wave velocity to measure the stiffness of each person’s arteries. Overall, results show that arterial stiffness increased by over 10 percent between ages 17 and 24, with a slightly higher increase among young women. However, artery stiffness increased for every percentage increase in drinking recorded by the participants.

Drinking more impactful on young hearts than smoking?

Surprisingly, the study did not find any increase in arterial stiffness due to smoking more. Researchers do note that the heavy smoker group had a higher number of participants with stiff arteries in comparison to non-smokers, but the overall statistical change was only significant among female smokers.

Overall, seven percent of young adults fell into the non-drinking category, 52 percent in the medium drinking group, and 41 percent in the heavy drinking group. As for smokers, 37 percent were non-smokers, 35 percent quit smoking, 23 percent are moderate smokers, and five percent reported being heavy smokers.

“The results suggest that arterial damage occurs in young drinkers and young women who smoke heavily. Never smokers and ex-smokers had similar alterations in arterial stiffness, indicating that quitting can restore vascular health at this young age,” Walford reports.

“Binge drinking is often a normal experience for students, and a falling smoking prevalence in the UK is challenged by a sharp rise in e-cigarette use. Young people may believe that drinking and smoking do not cause long-term damage. However, these results indicate that these behaviors could put young people on a life-course trajectory starting with early arterial stiffening, which may eventually lead to heart disease and stroke.”

Researchers presented their findings at ESC Congress 2021.