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Alcohol and Sudden Cardiac Death

The topic of sudden cardiac death is one that’s very close to me, having experienced an event many years back and earning me an implanted defibrillator.  So it should be no surprise that this topic piqued my interest when I stumbled across it.  Sudden Cardiac Death is the onset of an abrupt death, most often caused by a lethal cardiac arrhythmia.

The research, conducted by a team at the Boston Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and led by Stephanie Chiuve, an instructor in medicine, discovered that when women consumed between one-half to one drink of alcohol a day, their risk of sudden cardiac death dropped by 36 percent.  However, when women doubled their intake and had more than two drinks per day, they increased their risk of sudden cardiac death by about 15 percent.  The complete study is published in the October issue of the medical journal Heart Rhythm.

“Numerous studies have found a protective association between alcohol intake and coronary heart disease, stroke and congestive heart failure, but little research has been done on alcohol and sudden cardiac death,” explained study author Stephanie Chiuve, an instructor in medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.  She went on to state that alcohol has a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels and helps reduce the amount of plaque that collects in the blood vessels. She said that it doesn’t appear that any one particular type of alcohol is more beneficial than others, suggesting that it’s the ethanol contained in alcoholic beverages that provides the health boost.

However, excess alcohol consumption can produce what is known as “pro-arrhythmic” effects. That means alcohol can cause heart palpitations. The effect is so well-known that it’s been dubbed “holiday heart syndrome.”

Chiuve’s study included 85,067 women from the Nurses’ Health Study. None of the women had chronic disease when the study began, and all of the women answered questions about their alcohol intake every four years.  One drink is about 15 grams of alcohol, according to Chiuve. And, one drink translates to 12 ounces of beer, four ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.

The researchers found that women who drank between 5 grams and 14.9 grams of alcohol daily had the lowest risk of sudden cardiac death. Those who were former drinkers had a 21 percent reduced risk of sudden cardiac death compared to teetotalers, according to the study.  Women who drank 0.1 to 4.9 grams of alcohol daily had a 23 percent reduced risk of sudden cardiac death compared to lifetime abstainers, while those who consumed 5 to 14.9 grams of alcohol each day reduced their sudden cardiac death risk by 36 percent. Women who had 15 to 29.9 grams of daily alcohol had a 32 percent reduced risk of sudden cardiac death.  However, once the amount of daily alcohol got above 30 grams or two drinks a day — the risk of sudden cardiac death increased by 15 percent over the teetotaling group.

Dr. Michael Davidson, director of preventive cardiology at the University of Chicago Medical Center, noted that when he has patients with heart palpitations, he suggests that they cut back on their alcohol intake to see if that helps.  If you feel fluttering in your heart and you’ve only had one drink, it may be the alcohol.

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