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Alcohol Effects on the Heart

By: S. Rennie, LPN

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While researching this topic, one thing became very clear – there is firm data that suggests that alcohol is both good and bad for your heart. There are many factors that play into this finding and it's not cut and dry. Once you sort through family history, amount of drinking, what you drink and for how long, then you can begin to see where you fit into this topic.1 Since the focus is primarily on alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, the topic will be explored mostly with that in mind.

The effect of alcohol is complex, and for some people, mild use can be harmful and heavy use is certainly harmful.1 Long–term and heavy alcohol misuse is directly linked to stroke, high blood pressure and cardiomyopathy.2

High Blood Pressure: Excessive alcohol use can raise your blood pressure to an unhealthy level.2,3 Reducing alcohol consumption will reduce blood pressure readings by a few points on both the systolic and diastolic numbers.3 High blood pressure is directly related to the occurrence of stroke.4

Stroke: Heavy drinking is linked to both ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke. Ischemic stroke occurs when an artery is blocked to the brain thus causing damage and/or death to the brain tissue due to the cutoff of the oxygen and nutrient supply.4 Approximately 88% of strokes are Ischemic.4 Hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a diseased blood vessel bursts and allows blood to leak into the brain. This sudden increase in pressure causes damage to the brain cells and can lead to unconsciousness and even death.4 The most common cause is high blood pressure.4

Cardiomyopathy: Cardiomyopathy is a general term for a group of diseases that abnormally enlarge, thicken or stiffen heart muscle and reduce pumping effectiveness.5 Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body's oxygen needs.5 Drinking alcohol in large quantities has a toxic effect on the hearts muscle.6 It's mostly seen in men ages 45-55 but can occur in anyone who drinks alcohol over long periods of time.6

While studies do show that drinking alcohol in moderation can have some cardiac benefits, doctors to not recommend drinking alcohol for better heart health.1 The benefits that it may provide apply to older people.2 Since heart disease is uncommon in young people, there are no health benefits from alcohol use for them.2


  1. Heart Disease Guide. WebMD.
  2. Alcohol and Heart Disease. Adapted from: Australian Department of Health and Aging, Australian Alcohol Guidelines Fact Sheets. Principal Source: National health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Australian Alcohol Guidelines: Health Risks and Benefits, NHMRC, Canberra. 2001,
  3. Sheldon Sheps, MD and colleagues. Alcohol: Does it affect blood pressure?. Ask a High Blood Pressure Specialist. June 14, 2006.
  4. Ischemic Stroke. About Stroke. The Internet Stoke Center.
  5. Cardiomyopathy: the greatest heart disease threat in Africa. Amreican Heart Association rapid access journal report. December 5, 2005.
  6. Alcoholic cardiomyopathy. Medical Encyclopedia. MedlinePlus. November 6, 2006.

This page was last modified on : 10/28/2013

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