Alcohol Abstinence May Lower Incidence of Atrial Fibrillation: Study
Tue, April 20, 2021

Alcohol Abstinence May Lower Incidence of Atrial Fibrillation: Study

People with atrial fibrillation may want to add abstinence from alcohol to their New Year's resolution this year / Photo by: gstockstudio via 123RF

 

People with atrial fibrillation may want to add abstinence from alcohol to their New Year's resolution this year.  A new study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that eliminating alcohol consumption reduces the occurrence of life-threatening irregular heartbeat among moderate and heavy drinkers.

Recent studies have established the link between atrial fibrillation (AFib) and drinking, in which even moderate alcohol consumption may trigger symptoms or worsen the condition. Drinking also makes it more likely to have AFib symptoms recur even after a heart operation.

For the NEJM trial, the researchers looked into the effect of complete abstinence from alcohol consumption by following 140 volunteers for six months.

 

A Compelling Argument

AFib is the most common heart rhythm problem and occurs when the heart's upper chamber beat inconsistently. While it comes and goes for some people, AFib is the leading cause of stroke. Symptoms include feeling weak, shortness of breath, and palpitations.

Hypertension, viral infections, and abnormal heart valves are among the possible causes of the condition. Treating AFib is done by controlling blood pressure and other factors to reduce occurrences, international news organization Reuters reported.

However, the new study suggested a "compelling argument for alcohol abstinence as part of the successful management of atrial fibrillation," wrote Anne Gillis of the University of Calgary in an editorial accompanying the study.

The findings of the randomized trial showed that that person who abstained from drinking alcohol saw a significant reduction in AFib occurrence compared to those who merely reduced their intake and continued to drink.

But even with the promising results, Gillis said many people with AFib may have great difficulties in achieving total alcohol abstinence. This difficulty is evident in the trial, which Reuters revealed was supposed to run for 12 months but was cut to half because the researchers were not able to find volunteers willing to abstain from drinking for such a long period of time.

AFib is the most common heart rhythm problem and occurs when the heart's upper chamber beat inconsistently. While it comes and goes for some people, AFib is the leading cause of stroke. Symptoms include feeling weak, shortness of breath, and palpitations / Photo by: Roman Samborskyi via 123RF

 

Abstaining From Alcohol Consumption

Results of population-based research showed that every drink can increase the risk of AFib by 8%—whether it's 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. The new randomized trial stood as a definitive test for these findings.

The 140 participants were randomly assigned to either the abstinence group or the control group. While the control group was not required to increase nor reduce their alcohol consumption, they still lowered their drinking for six months.

The abstinence group, on the other hand, was told to eliminate their alcohol consumption. Only 61% percent were able to cut out drinking completely and a quarter of them couldn't reduce their weekly average consumption below two drinks.

At the end of their analysis, the researchers found that AFib reappeared in 73% of people who had an average of 13 drinks a week. The rate dropped much lower for volunteers in the abstinence group (53%) even though they consumed an average of two drinks weekly.

Results also showed it took longer for AFib to reappear if a person abstains from alcohol consumption (120 days) than when they continued drinking (87 days). Overall, drinkers' hearts spent 1.2% of the six-month trial in AFib compared to just 0.5% of the time among those who were in the abstinence group.

Impact of Abstinence

The rise in alcohol consumption also increases the prevalence of AFib, which currently affects more than 33 million people worldwide. Among the many causes of the condition, alcohol is seen as the most common trigger for AFib as reported by 35% of patients.

Reducing alcohol consumption may reduce its impact to AFib, but complete abstinence is shown to bring greater benefits.

"If we had had complete abstinence, I think the difference would have been even greater," Peter Kistler, a co-author of the study from the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, said in an interview with Reuters.

Another notable finding was that non-drinkers also lost an average of eight pounds during the trial period compared to those who continued to drink. A significant drop in blood pressure was also observed, although there is a caution to this finding because of the missing data from many patients.

Even so, the researchers asserted that "our findings are consistent with a systematic review of 36 trials that showed a reduction in blood pressure with [a] decrease in alcohol intake, particularly among drinkers who had been consuming more than 14 drinks per week."

Kistler said the doctor's advice of drinking alcohol once a day, which was said to be good for the heart, should not apply to people with AFib. Even for those who have other forms of heart conditions, the new study "still suggests that they reduce their alcohol intake substantially."

The researchers also noted limitations to their study, including the self-reported amount of alcohol by the patients that may have been affected to "recall and misclassification bias." Missing data, the lack of a plan to adjust for multiple comparisons, and sleep-disordered breathing, which was not assessed during the trial, were also factors that may have affected some outcomes.

Nevertheless, what the study perfectly made clear is that drinking regularly, even in minimum quantities, will have a negative effect on the human body.