Young adults who reported binge drinking more than a dozen times in the past year were more likely to have certain risk factors for heart disease and stroke than those who binge drank less often or not at all, a new study shows.
Previous studies have found binge drinking is associated with an increased risk of heart attack, stroke and high blood pressure in middle-age and older adults. The new study investigated whether there was a link between binge drinking as a young adult and known risk factors for these cardiovascular diseases, which typically occur later in life.
For the study, published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Heart Association, Mariann R. Piano and her colleagues looked at the health data and binge-drinking patterns of 4,710 adults ages 18 to 45 who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2011 and 2014. The long-running federal study collects health information on U.S. children and adults.
“I think young adults right now, when they think of binge drinking, they just think about having really bad hangovers,” said Piano, senior associate dean for research at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing in Nashville. “I think they put the risks or the harms of binge drinking in this bucket of ‘nothing too serious or life-changing.’”
But that may not be the case.
The study found that the men who reported binge drinking had slightly higher systolic blood pressure than those who didn’t binge drink. The average systolic blood pressure (top number) of men who didn’t binge drink was 117.5 mmHg. For those who binge drank 12 or fewer times a year it averaged 119, and for those who reported binge drinking more than 12 times a year, the average was 121.8. An ideal systolic blood pressure is less than 120.
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as consuming several servings of beer, wine, liquor or other alcoholic drinks that may lead to blood alcohol levels of more than 0.08 g/dL. For women, that roughly represents about four alcoholic drinks in two hours, and for men, at least five in the same time frame.
Piano and her colleagues also found men who engaged in binge drinking had higher total cholesterol levels than those who didn’t. In addition, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol — the “bad cholesterol” — was higher in men who binge drank more than 12 times a year.
The study found binge drinking affected women differently. For example, women who were binge drinkers did not have notably higher blood pressure than women who didn’t binge drink. In addition, total cholesterol levels were not significantly higher among women who binge drank more than 12 times a year. However, women who binge drank were more likely than women who did not binge drink to have high blood sugar levels.
The study is one of several published in recent years to look at the relationship between excessive drinking and cardiovascular health.
A 2017 study found alcohol abuse was associated with increased heart attack risk and the likelihood of a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm disorder that may lead to stroke.
Piano’s investigation comes on the heels of a study from researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found 37.4 million U.S. adults — 17.1 percent of the population — are binge drinkers. Although binge drinking was more common among 18- to 34-year-olds, half of the total binge drinks were consumed by adults over 34, the study showed.
Longtime heart disease and stroke researcher Dr. Michael Criqui said the results of Piano’s study didn’t surprise him. Cardiovascular researchers have known for a long time that excessive alcohol consumption increases blood pressure, he said.
Even so, Criqui, a professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the University of California, San Diego, said the findings are important because they focus on young adults. Studies on the relationship between alcohol and heart disease, stroke and risk factors for those conditions have typically been on older adults, Criqui said.
Piano and Criqui both said the study findings suggest pediatricians and primary care doctors should talk about the long-term health risks of binge drinking with their patients as early as middle school.
Public health campaigns that address the serious and negative health consequences of binge drinking would also help, Piano said, “similar to how we popularized [the importance of] wearing seat belts and bike helmets.”
Ultimately, though, Piano and Criqui said preventing binge drinking behavior starts at home. “Kids can count,” said Criqui. “Kids don’t do as the parents say, they do as the parents do.”