Booze Binges Bad for Your Heart

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Heavy alcohol consumption found to raise risk of metabolic syndrome.

BEFORE YOU RAISE TOO MANY TOASTS on this St. Patrick's Day, drink in the latest findings linking heavy alcohol consumption and metabolic syndrome.

You may be toasting a heart attack.

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of cardiovascular disease risk factors including high blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, low levels of "good cholesterol" (HDL), impaired fasting glucose and excess abdominal fat. If you have three of these five risk factors, that adds up to a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome--which in turn increases your risk for cardiovascular disease.

According to new research announced by the American Heart Association, the risk of developing metabolic syndrome increases the more a person drinks. Beginning a heavy drinking pattern early in life seems to add extra risk.

"Our study found that drinking patterns independently predict the risk of metabolic syndrome," says lead author Amy Z. Fan, MD, PhD. Dr. Fan and co-author Marcia Russell, PhD, MPH, conducted the study at the Prevention Research Center, Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, in Berkeley, Calif., where Russell is a senior scientist. Dr. Fan is a cardiovascular epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

"Intensity and frequency of alcohol consumption is important, not just the volume of drinking over a lifetime," according to Dr. Fan. "It's the historical pattern of drinking that matters."

The scientists studied lifetime drinking patterns among a large population sample in northwestern New York State, developed and maintained by the University of Buffalo. They looked at three factors:

• Total volume --the total number of drinks in a lifetime

• Frequency --the total lifetime drinking days

• Intensity --drinks per drinking day, averaged over a lifetime.

The study found that drinkers in the highest category of intensity have a 60 percent greater risk of developing metabolic syndrome than those in the lowest category. Those drinkers most at risk represented females who consumed an average of four drinks per drinking day and males who consumed an average of six drinks per drinking day. The lowest-intensity group were females averaging one drink and males averaging 1.3 drinks.

Those in the second quartile category had a 23 percent higher risk, and those in the third quartile category had a 43 percent higher risk, compared to those in the low-intensity group. The effect of drinking patterns was independent of age, race, gender, family history of heart disease and diabetes, smoking, physical activity and other risk factors.

"Individuals who had an early peak of drinking behavior are at higher risk of metabolic syndrome compared to those who have initiated drinking later in life and maintained a low moderate level through life," says Dr. Fan. "A history of heavy, episodic drinking carries a greater risk of developing metabolic syndrome, regardless of gender."

The researchers concluded that it is healthier to drink smaller amounts per drinking day than to drink more on fewer days, in line with current guidelines on moderate drinking. Says Dr. Fan, "The drinking pattern of one drink per day is much healthier than seven drinks on a weekend."

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