Heart and circulatory diseases are the UK’s biggest killers with an annual death rate in excess of 180,000 men and women, costing the country £14.4 billion every year. Evidence shows that excessive drinking has a direct effect on your heart. Like other factors such as smoking, eating a poor diet and not getting enough exercise, drinking raises your risk of developing the disease.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is caused by a gradual build up of fatty deposits on the walls of your coronary arteries, which deliver blood to the heart. This causes the artery to narrow, and makes it harder for it to supply your heart muscle with blood and oxygen. To function normally, the muscle tissue that constitutes the bulk of the heart requires a constant supply of oxygen-containing blood. Blocking of the arteries leads to coronary heart disease, which may result in angina (heartrelated chest pain) and eventually to sudden death from a heart attack.
Heart attacks, the most common serious manifestation of coronary heart disease, are generally triggered by a blood clot forming within a constricted coronary artery, obstructing blood flow and depriving a portion of the heart muscle of oxygen. As a result, the heart can’t pump properly which can cause permanent disability or death, either immediately or through medical complications.
Long-term drinking and heavy alcohol consumption is linked with weakness of the heart muscle, known as cardiomyopathy. That means the heart can’t pump blood as efficiently.
Sporadic heavy drinking (binge drinking) increases the risk of developing coronary heart disease, the most common form of heart disease. The Department of Health figures show that men nearly double their chances of developing coronary heart disease by drinking more than eight units a day. Women have a 1.3 times greater risk of developing coronary heart disease when they drink more than six units a day.
Women who persistently drink more than thee units of alcohol a day and men who drink more than four, are more likely to suffer from the risk factors associated with cardiovascular disorders such as high blood pressure. Cardiovascular diseases affect the heart or blood vessels – arteries, capillaries and veins).
Drinking too much has the following effects on the heart:
- Binge drinking or a period of heavy alcohol consumption can cause a sudden, irregular rhythm of the heart in apparently healthy people. This results in shortness of breath, changes in blood pressure and an increase in the risk of a heart attack and even sudden death.
- An increased risk of thrombosis (blood clotting). Alcohol can affect levels of a substance in the blood called homocysteine. High homocysteine levels increase the risk of blood vessel blockages.
- Increased risk of high blood pressure (hypertension). According to the Department of Health, men who regularly consume more than eight alcohol units a day are four times more likely to develop high blood pressure. Women who regularly consume more than six alcohol units a day double their risk of developing high blood pressure. People who’ve had a heart attack may be at greater risk of developing high blood pressure or further damage to the heart muscle as a result of drinking alcohol.
- Regular heavy drinking may lead to enlargement of the heart. This is a sign that the heart is unable to pump effectively. This condition is known as heart failure, and requires treatment consisting of drugs, a pacemaker or even a heart transplant. The condition is not curable.
To keep your heart healthy, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) advises:
- taking exercise
- eating a healthy diet
- being aware of dangers such as smoking, drinking, high blood pressure and stress
Visit the British Heart Foundation website for more information.