In a study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers found that four years of heavy drinking between the ages of 18 and 25 may be enough to permanently increase a person's risk of heart attack, stroke and atherosclerosis.
Researchers at the University of Illinois recruited 38 nonsmoking young adults and split them into two groups: alcohol abstainers and binge drinkers. To be considered a binge drinker, participants had to have consumed five or more servings of alcohol in two hours, at least six times a month, for about four years.
Study authors then used ultrasound imaging to examine the blood vessels in the participants' arms when they were given nitroglycerin - a blood vessel dilator - and after blood flow was restricted temporarily and then allowed to run free.
What they found was that abstainers' blood vessels were more elastic and had a greater ability to dilate than did the vessels of the binge drinkers. This diminished vascular function could be an early indicator of blood vessel damage and atherosclerosis, factors that could increase the likelihood of future cardiovascular problems, authors wrote.
"Regular heavy episodic alcohol use (or "binge drinking") is one of the most serious public health problems confronting American colleges," wrote lead author Melissa Goslawski, a researcher in the college's Department of Physical Therapy.
"This study adds to a growing chain of evidence that suggests that, in contrast to regular and moderate alcohol consumption, binge drinking may be a risk factor for future cardiovascular disease."
Goslawski and her colleagues noted that the study was limited by its small sample size. And an editorial that accompanied the piece said it would have been instructive to include a test group that drank alcohol in moderation.
"Such further study might give us, for the first time, the exact mechanism by which excess alcohol and binge drinking pattern lead to hypertension," wrote Dr. Robert Vogel, a cardiologist at the University of Colorado Hospital. "That discovery would be worth celebrating with a drink."
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