Frequent drinking could be a greater risk factor for heart disorder than binge drinking

How often you drink alcohol could have a big impact on your risk of a heart disorder known as atrial fibrillation, according to new research

New Korean research has found that frequently drinking small amounts of alcohol could increase the risk of atrial fibrillation (AF), an irregular and often abnormally fast heartbeat, more than binge drinking.

Carried out by researchers at Korea University College of Medicine and Korea University Anam Hospital and The Catholic University of Korea, the new study looked at data from 9,776,956 individuals without AF who completed a national health check-up in 2009, which included a questionnaire about alcohol consumption. 

The participants were then followed until 2017 to see how many developed AF.

The findings, published online in EP Europace, a journal of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC), showed that how much alcohol participants consumed per week was linked to the risk of AF; for each gram of alcohol consumed per week there was a 2 percent increase in the risk of developing the heart condition. 

However, it was the number of drinking sessions per week which was the strongest risk factor for new-onset AF. Compared with participants who drink twice per week, who were used as a reference group, those who drank once per week showed the lowest risk of developing AF, while those who drank every day had the highest risk.

There was no clear link between binge drinking and AF. 

"Our study suggests that frequent drinking is more dangerous than infrequent binge drinking with regard to atrial fibrillation,' said study author Dr Jong-Il Choi. "The number of drinking sessions was related to atrial fibrillation onset regardless of age and sex. Repeated episodes of atrial fibrillation triggered by alcohol may lead to overt disease. In addition, drinking can provoke sleep disturbance which is a known risk factor for atrial fibrillation."

Atrial fibrillation, also known as a heart flutter, is the most common heart rhythm disorder, and the risk of developing the condition increases with age. Symptoms include chest pain, 'racing' or unusual heartbeat palpitations, weakness, fatigue, lightheadedness, dizziness and shortness of breath, and the condition increases the risk of stroke, other medical problems, and death.

"Recommendations about alcohol consumption have focused on reducing the absolute amount rather than the frequency," said Dr Choi. "Our study suggests that drinking less often may also be important to protect against atrial fibrillation."

"Atrial fibrillation is a disease with multiple dreadful complications and significantly impaired quality of life. Preventing atrial fibrillation itself, rather than its complications, should be our first priority. Alcohol consumption is probably the most easily modifiable risk factor. To prevent new-onset atrial fibrillation, both the frequency and weekly amount of alcohol consumption should be reduced."