The researchers noted that their study was limited in several ways; they had to estimate the amount of ethanol consumed when the types of drinks were unknown; the definition of heavy drinking varied across studies; and the results may have been skewed by unknown variables such as high blood pressure, which was tracked in some studies but not in others. They added that the association between atrial fibrillation and high alcohol intake, for example, was weaker in studies that factored in hypertension.
Commenting on the study, Dr. Gregg Fonarow, American Heart Association spokesman and a cardiology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that "it is well established that binge drinking of alcohol is associated with atrial fibrillation; this is commonly referred to as 'holiday heart.'" A number of other studies also have suggested that moderate or heavy daily drinking is associated with an increased risk for atrial fibrillation, he said.
The new study, Fonarow said, found that the relationship between daily alcohol consumption and the risk for atrial fibrillation "appears to be linear, with the greater the amount of alcohol consumed, the greater the AF risk, with the lowest risk of atrial fibrillation being observed in those who do not consume alcohol."
Alcohol can have both direct and indirect effects on the heart, which can increase the susceptibility to atrial fibrillation, he said. "These include changes in the autonomic nervous system, changes in blood pressure, changes in the heart and direct effects on heart muscle cells," Fonarow said.
The American Heart Association has more on living with atrial fibrillation.
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