Drinking high amounts of alcohol may be linked to increased risk of stroke or peripheral artery disease – the narrowing of arteries in the legs, according to new genetic research.
The study, published Tuesday in Circulation: Genomic and Precision Medicine, used a technique called Mendelian randomization that identifies genetic variants. While observational studies have shown similar results, this new work provides insights through a different lens.
"Since genetic variants are determined at conception and cannot be affected by subsequent environmental factors, this technique allows us to better determine whether a risk factor – in this case, heavy alcohol consumption – is the cause of a disease, or if it is simply associated," the study's lead author, Susanna Larsson, said in a news release. Larsson is senior researcher and associate professor of cardiovascular and nutritional epidemiology at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden. "To our knowledge, this is the first study of its kind on alcohol consumption and several cardiovascular diseases."
Genetic data from more than 500,000 United Kingdom residents showed higher alcohol intake contributed to a threefold increase of peripheral artery disease, a 27% increase in stroke risk, and a potential link to coronary artery disease, atrial fibrillation and aortic aneurysm.
"Higher alcohol consumption is a known cause of death and disability, yet it was previously unclear if alcohol consumption is also a cause of cardiovascular disease," Larsson said. "Considering that many people consume alcohol regularly, it is important to disentangle any risks or benefits."
Researchers suggest the heightened risk of stroke and PAD could be caused by higher blood pressure.
The American Heart Association's statement on dietary health suggests alcohol intake can be part of a healthy diet if consumed in moderation – that is, no more than one drink a day for non-pregnant women and two drinks a day for men. The statement notes potential risks of alcohol on existing health conditions, medication-alcohol interaction or personal safety and work situations.
The prevalence of heavy drinking among participants was low, which researchers say is a limitation of the study.
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