SEOUL, South Korea — Binge drinking, or consuming an excessive amount of alcohol in a relatively short amount of time, is typically considered the most irresponsible and unhealthy way to enjoy booze. Surprisingly, a new study conducted in South Korea finds that frequently drinking small amounts of alcohol may actually be worse than binge drinking when it comes to heart health.
More specifically, researchers from the Korea University College of Medicine and the Korea University Anam Hospital in Seoul say that regularly drinking any amount of alcohol will put one at a greater risk of developing atrial fibrillation than the occasional night of binge drinking.
“Recommendations about alcohol consumption have focused on reducing the absolute amount rather than the frequency,” comments study author Dr. Jong-Il Choi in a release. “Our study suggests that drinking less often may also be important to protect against atrial fibrillation.”
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common heart rhythm disorder in the world, with somewhere between 2.7-6.1 million Americans alone estimated to be afflicted by the condition. The disorder is characterized by an irregular heart beat, heart palpitations, a racing pulse, dizziness, chest pain, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Furthermore, AFib can lead to much more serious heart conditions and puts one at a five times greater risk of suffering a stroke.
A previous study had already found a relationship between alcohol and atrial fibrillation, concluding that each alcoholic beverage consumed on a weekly basis increased one’s risk of developing AFib by 8%. However, this research wasn’t able to determine the real nature of this relationship, as in, which factor is actually causing this increase: total amount of alcohol or overall number of drinking sessions.
This new study investigated frequent drinking versus binge drinking when it comes to new diagnoses of atrial fibrillation. Data analyzed for the study consisted of 9,776,956 people who did not have AFib during a health check up in 2009 that also included a survey regarding alcohol consumption habits. Each participant was then tracked up until 2017 in order to track who among them ended up developing AFib.
The study’s authors discovered that number of drinking sessions per week was the strongest risk factor among participants who developed AFib. Predictably, participants who reported drinking every day of the week were found to be the most at risk, while drinking just once per week was associated with the lowest risk factors among drinkers. It was especially noteworthy that binge drinking habits didn’t show any clear link to new-onset atrial fibrillation.
“Our study suggests that frequent drinking is more dangerous than infrequent binge drinking with regard to atrial fibrillation,” Dr. Choi explains. “The number of drinking sessions was related to atrial fibrillation onset regardless of age and sex. Repeated episodes of atrial fibrillation triggered by alcohol may lead to overt disease. In addition, drinking can provoke sleep disturbance which is a known risk factor for atrial fibrillation.”
All that being said, the study also found that the amount of alcohol consumed on a weekly basis also plays a role; for each .035 ounces of alcohol consumed per week, participants saw a 2% increase in their risk of developing AFib. There was a caveat to this finding, though; compared to mild drinkers, or people who may just have a drink once or twice a month, non-drinkers were actually more at risk of developing AFib by 7.7%. Dr. Choi speculates that this finding may have been a “confounding effect of unmeasured variables.”
“Atrial fibrillation is a disease with multiple dreadful complications and significantly impaired quality of life. Preventing atrial fibrillation itself, rather than its complications, should be our first priority. Alcohol consumption is probably the most easily modifiable risk factor. To prevent new-onset atrial fibrillation, both the frequency and weekly amount of alcohol consumption should be reduced,” Dr. Choi concludes.
The study is published in the scientific journal EP Europace.