Reducing your intake of alcohol might improve atrial fibrillation (AFib), a common type of irregular heartbeat, according to an Australian study in The New England Journal of Medicine. It found that moderate to heavy drinkers with AFib—a leading cause of stroke—who lowered their alcohol intake had fewer episodes of arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms) when measured against those who didn’t change their drinking habits.
The researchers randomly divided 140 people (average age, 62) with AFib and who routinely consumed 10 or more drinks a week into two groups. They asked one group to refrain from drinking and instructed the control group to continue drinking normally. However, not everyone in the abstinence group was successful in their bid to stop drinking entirely. Still, on average, they managed to reduce their intake to two glasses weekly—down from about 17 drinks a week.
Over six months, 51 of the 70 patients in the control group had arrhythmia episodes that lasted 30 seconds or longer, but the rate was 37 of 70 patients in the abstinence group. Since the trial was composed of 85 percent men, it’s unclear whether less alcohol would have the same effect on women.
It's worth noting that the original length of the clinical trial was slated to be one year. However, the researchers couldn’t recruit enough participants to commit to abstinence for that long, so the trial length was shortened to six months. Longer trials are needed to see whether the positive effects persist.
What you should do
If you have AFib and are a moderate or heavy drinker, your heart health could significantly benefit from abstaining or substantially curbing your alcohol consumption, preferably to no more than two drinks a week. That amount is well below the CDC’s recommendations for moderate drinking: no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. Men 65 and older should aim for no more than one drink a day. If you have difficulty quitting, try to avoid your triggers, says the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. If you can, avoid people and places that encourage drinking, and keep alcohol out of your home. You can also ask your doctor for help with quitting.
This article first appeared in the April 2020 issue of UC Berkeley Health After 50.