Harvard Heart Letter

Heart Beat: Binge drinking and stroke

Heart Beat

Binge drinking and stroke

One sign of a great mind, said Roman philosopher and poet Seneca, is to prefer things in measure to things in excess. His observation certainly applies to drinking alcohol. Moderate drinking — which translates into one to two drinks a day for men, no more than one a day for women — offers some protection against heart disease and stroke. Excessive drinking (the amount of which differs from person to person) can raise blood pressure, throw off heart rhythms, and damage heart muscle.

A person's drinking pattern may be as important as the quantity of alcohol consumed. Having seven drinks on a Saturday night and then not drinking the rest of the week has a different impact on the body than having one drink a day. A study from Finland links a pattern of binge drinking with stroke. (Binge drinking was defined as sometimes having more than six drinks at a time for men, more than four for women.) Over a 10-year period, almost 5% of the study participants who reported occasionally binge drinking had a stroke, compared with under 1% of those who didn't report any binge drinking (Stroke, December 2008). Earlier studies linked binge drinking with heart attack.

As a Roman, Seneca may have enjoyed what we now call the Mediterranean diet — plenty of foods from plants, fish and meat in moderation, and wine drunk with meals. That sort of drinking pattern seems to be even better than moderate drinking done before or after dinner.

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