Middle-Aged Heavy Drinkers Have Increased Stroke Risks

Posted on April 15th, 2015
Posted in Alcohol Abuse

People who qualify as middle-aged heavy drinkers have significantly increased chances of experiencing a stroke, regardless of other stroke-related factors, according to the results of a new study from a team of Czech, Swedish and American researchers.

Heavy drinking is a pattern of dangerous alcohol consumption primarily associated with increased chances of developing diagnosable symptoms of alcohol use disorder (alcoholism and/or alcohol abuse). In a study published in January 2015 in the American Heart Association journal Stroke, researchers calculated the impact that heavy alcohol consumption has on the odds that a middle-aged man or woman will experience a potentially fatal stroke.

Heavy Drinkers

Doctors, public health officials and researchers divide levels of alcohol consumption into three broad categories: light drinking, moderate drinking and heavy drinking. Light drinkers regularly consume no more than a drink or so per day and also keep their total weekly consumption at a low level. Moderate drinking definitions vary for men and women. Moderate-drinking men regularly consume one to four drinks per day, and no more than 14 drinks per week. Moderate-drinking women, on the other hand, regularly consume one to three drinks per day, and no more than seven drinks per week. Heavy drinkers exceed the gender-specific definitions for moderate daily or weekly alcohol intake. In other words, heavy-drinking men regularly consume at least five drinks a day or 15 drinks a week, while heavy-drinking women regularly consume at least four drinks a day or eight drinks a week.

“Regular” is a variable term when it comes to heavy drinking and can indicate involvement in excessive alcohol intake as infrequently as once a month or as frequently as two or more times per week. Each large upward shift in heavy drinking participation is accompanied by an increased chance of developing alcohol use disorder. At the low end, monthly heavy drinkers have about a 20 percent lifetime chance of developing the disorder. In contrast, people who drink heavily twice or more per week have about a 50/50 lifetime chance of receiving an alcohol use disorder diagnosis.

Stroke

Stroke is a broad term that actually encompasses two conditions. Most people experience a condition called ischemic stroke, which occurs when a blockage in an artery stops oxygen-bearing blood from reaching part of the brain. However, some people experience hemorrhagic stroke, which occurs when a blood vessel inside the brain bursts or leaks and spills blood into the surrounding brain tissue. In both conditions, oxygen deprivation inside the brain can lead to rapid cell damage and cell death. In turn, these problems can kill an affected individual or produce serious or severe lifelong health deficits.

Middle Age, Heavy Drinking and Stroke

In the study published in Stroke, researchers from the Czech Republic’s St. Anne’s University Hospital, Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, the University of South Florida and the University of Southern California, Los Angeles used a long-term Swedish project with 11,644 participants to explore the connection between alcohol consumption levels in middle age and the chances of experiencing a stroke in middle age or in later life. At the start of the study, the maximum age of these participants was 60. In addition to habitual levels of alcohol intake, the researchers examined a range of other factors that have an impact on stroke risks, including heart and blood vessel disease, gender, age, the presence of type 1 or type 2 diabetes, cigarette use, activity level, relative mental health and typical reactions to stress.

Of the 11,644 participants, roughly 29 percent experienced a stroke by the time they reached the age of 75. The researchers concluded that, compared to light drinking in middle age, heavy drinking in middle age increases the odds of experiencing a stroke by fully 34 percent. They also concluded that, even when heredity and behavior in earlier decades of life are taken into account, people who drink heavily between the ages of 50 and 69 have substantially heightened chances of experiencing a stroke within the next five years of their lives. In addition, the researchers concluded that heavy drinking in middle age significantly boosts the stroke risks already associated with middle-age health issues such as diabetes and hypertension.

Crucially, the researchers used a somewhat lower standard for daily heavy drinking than the standard generally used by doctors and public health officials. They identified increased stroke risks in middle-aged adults who consume more than two drinks per day.

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