Binge drinking may raise blood pressure in younger men

Thursday June 28 2018

"Knocking back as few as four drinks on a night out puts young adults at risk of heart disease," reports the Mail Online.

US researchers found men who drank 5 or more alcoholic drinks in a day several times a year had higher blood pressure and total cholesterol than those who didn't.

The study was based on a survey of adults in the US, using data from women and men aged 18 to 45.

People were asked how many times in the past year they'd drunk 5 alcoholic drinks in a day (4 for women), which was defined as binge drinking.

Binge drinking didn't seem to be linked to women's blood pressure or total cholesterol levels, although women who reported binge drinking were more likely to have raised blood glucose.

Because of the nature of the study, we can't say whether binge drinking causes higher blood pressure and total cholesterol in men, or raised blood glucose in women.

Also, because these people weren't followed up at a later stage, we can't be sure if these changes had an effect on their future health.

But from what we know about heart disease, it would be surprising if there wasn't some degree of negative influence caused by higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

While these study results aren't conclusive, heavy drinking brings other health issues to consider, from hangovers to liver damage.

Advice in the UK is to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week and to spread drinks evenly throughout the week.

Where did the story come from?

The researchers who carried out the study came from the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing and the University of Illinois, both in the US, and Keimyung University in South Korea.

The study was funded by the US National Institutes of Health and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Heart Association on an open access basis, so it's free to read online.

The Mail Online illustrates its story with a photograph of a group of women drinking wine. As photo choices go, this is misleading as the results of the study applied mainly to men.

Similarly, at no point in the story does the news website explain that women who reported binge drinking didn't have a raised risk of blood pressure or high cholesterol.

What kind of research was this?

The study was an analysis of the cross-sectional US National Health and Examination Survey (NHANES) data.

Cross-sectional studies can't show cause and effect because they just show you one point in time.

What did the research involve?

Researchers looked at information about alcohol use from the US-based NHANES survey carried out from 2011 to 2014.

NHANES is a population-based survey designed to collect information on the health and nutrition of the US population.

The researchers used information from 4,710 men and women aged 18 to 45 who didn't have cardiovascular disease and had given information about alcohol use.

They divided people into 3 groups:

  • non-binge drinkers
  • people who reported binge drinking (4 to 5 or more drinks a day; information on total alcohol units wasn't collected) 12 times a year or less
  • people who reported binge drinking more than 12 times a year

The researchers compared people's alcohol use to their blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose results.

They looked separately at men and women, and compared results for men and women with each other to get a picture of whether binge drinking might affect men and women differently.

The researchers adjusted their figures to take account of some potential confounding factors, including diet, salt intake, smoking and physical exercise, as all of these are known to have an effect on blood pressure.

What were the basic results?

The results were different for men and women.

Men's systolic blood pressure (the force at which your heart pumps blood around your body) was higher for those who reported binge drinking. Ideally, systolic blood pressure should be between 90 and 120 mmHg.

In the study, systolic blood pressure was:

  • 117.5mmHg for men who didn't binge drink
  • 119.0mmHg for men who reported binge drinking 12 times a year or less
  • 121.8mmHg for men who reported binge drinking more than 12 times a year

Women's systolic blood pressure was almost the same in the 3 groups.

Binge drinking wasn't linked to diastolic blood pressure (the resistance to the blood flow in the blood vessels) for men or women.

Men who reported binge drinking had higher total cholesterol. Ideally, total cholesterol should be 200mg/dL or less.

In the study, it was:

  • 207.8mg/dL for non-binge drinkers
  • 217.9mg/dL for men reporting binge drinking 12 times a year or less
  • 215.5mg/dL for men reporting binge drinking more than 12 times a year

Women's total cholesterol wasn't linked to binge drinking, but was above 200mg/dL in all groups.

Women who reported binge drinking at any frequency had higher glucose levels (101.8 and 102.2 mg/dL) than those who didn't binge drink (97.1mg/dL). Ideal blood glucose is less than 100mg/dL (less than 5.4mmol/l).

Some of the results are a little surprising – for example, men who reported binge drinking had lower blood glucose, and both women and men who reported binge drinking had higher levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol than those who didn't binge drink.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers said: "Young adults need to be screened and counselled about alcohol misuse, including binge drinking, and advised on how binge drinking may affect their cardiovascular health."

Conclusion

The study adds to the evidence that alcohol use may affect blood pressure and cholesterol levels for some people.

Previous studies have shown that older adults who binge drink have a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

This study suggests some younger adults are also at risk.

The data from the study isn't particularly strong, however. For many of the metrics measured, researchers found no link with binge drinking.

For those where they did, the findings were sometimes contradictory, as seen in the difference in blood glucose between men and women.

The main problem with the study is that it's cross-sectional – it looked only at what people's blood pressure, lipid levels and drinking habits were at one point in time.

A more interesting study would follow people who reported different levels of binge drinking over several years to see how their blood pressure and lipid levels changed over time.

That might give stronger, more reliable results, although it would amount to a more time-consuming and expensive piece of research.

Limitations from the study mean:

  • we don't know how long people had been binge drinking, or whether they changed their habits over time
  • we can't assess the cumulative effect of binge drinking on blood pressure and cholesterol
  • we don't know whether the results apply to young adults outside of the US

What we can say is that binge drinking isn't recommended for a variety of health reasons, including that it can raise blood pressure over time.

Find out more about binge drinking, its potential effects, and how to reduce the risks.

Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Website