High blood pressure is the most important preventable risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which causes heart attacks and strokes. Many factors can increase a person’s blood pressure, and alcohol has long been known to be one of those controllable factors. It has long been known that heavy drinking can increase blood pressure, but how much is too much? Recent studies are surprising.
In the U.S., a standard definition for “a drink” is considered a 12oz can of beer, a 5oz glass of wine, or a 1.5oz shot of hard liquor. Drink levels are generally defined as:
- Never or infrequent drinking: less than 1 drink per week
- Light drinking: 1-3 drinks per week
- Moderate drinking: 1 drink per day for women, 2 for men
- Heavy drinking: 2-3 drinks per day for women, 3-4 for men
- Very heavy drinking: Over 3 drinks per day
- Binge drinking: 4+ drinks within 2 hours for women, 5+ for men
Although many of us have heard that a glass of red wine per day is good for cardiovascular health, particularly due to the resveratrol and other antioxidants in red wine, most studies have been done with the antioxidants themselves in laboratory tests rather than on humans who drink red wine exclusively.
Although there is still some evidence that a glass of red wine per day may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, broader studies of actual drinkers in recent years have shown different results.
Drinking and blood pressure
While drinking heavily has always been recognized as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and stroke, recent evidence suggests that even moderate drinking, one drink per day, is associated with increased risks. A 2023 analysis of data from seven studies with 19,548 participants from the U.S., Korea, and Japan who were followed for 4-12 years found that even moderate drinking was associated with increased blood pressure as compared to those who did not drink at all. While the increase in blood pressure for moderate drinkers was not very high, it was considered significant. Overall, the average systolic measure increased 1.25 mmHg for moderate drinkers and 4.9mmHg for heavy drinkers.
While this positive association between drinking and blood pressure levels may seem like a small number, this is an average. Thus, drinking could significantly impact a person’s blood pressure depending on other factors, and therefore, it is best to be cautious when it comes to consuming alcohol.
As a case in point, another study of 600,000 people demonstrated that those drinking 7-14 drinks per week could expect on average a 6-month shorter life expectancy, as of age 40. Those drinking 14-25 drinks per week could expect a 1-2 year shorter lifespan, and heavier drinkers a 4-5 year shorter lifespan.
Potential good news
Becoming a teetotaler is not quite necessary, however, according to a study reported in 2018. Following nearly 100,000 adults aged 55-74 years who participated in the PLCO Cancer Screening Trial, those in the light drinking category (1-3 drinks per week) had the lowest risk of overall mortality, cardiovascular-related mortality, and combined risk of death or cancer, even lower than those among never-or-infrequent drinkers. As expected, hazard ratios of these outcomes increased as the frequency of alcoholic consumption increased.
This study suggests that a drink or two over the weekend may be healthier for you than not drinking at all. But virtually all evidence points to the negative health effects of frequent alcohol consumption.
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