Heavy alcohol consumption has been found to be linked to the accumulation of ectopic fat, according to recent results from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). The study, carried out by scientists at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, revealed that excessive alcohol intake is associated with higher levels of fat around vital organs such as the heart, liver, and intestines.
The research, led by Richard Kazibwe, M.D., assistant professor of internal medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, highlights the negative impact of excessive alcohol consumption on heart health. Pericardial fat, which refers to fat around the heart, is known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. The study aimed to investigate how alcohol intake contributes to this risk.
MESA, initiated in 1999, focuses on studying subclinical cardiovascular disease and its predictors. Over 6,500 participants of European, African, Hispanic, and Asian descent between the ages of 45 and 84 were enrolled in the study. The participants completed a personal-history questionnaire to assess their alcohol consumption, and were categorized as lifetime abstainers, former drinkers, light drinkers, moderate drinkers, heavy drinkers, or binge drinkers.
In a subset of participants, computerized tomography (CT) scans were performed to measure the accumulation of fat in specific areas such as around the heart (pericardial fat) and in the liver (hepatic fat). CT scans allowed the researchers to gain a better understanding of fat distribution in the body, which can explain variations in cardiovascular risk beyond traditional measures like body mass index.
The findings indicated that heavy alcohol consumption and binge drinking were associated with significantly higher levels of pericardial fat compared to those who never consumed alcohol. This correlation was also observed for other ectopic fat deposits, with the strongest associations found in pericardial and hepatic fat.
Interestingly, the study revealed that individuals who reported light to moderate alcohol intake had the lowest levels of ectopic fat. Furthermore, consumption of wine appeared to be less associated with higher levels of pericardial fat when compared to beer and liquor. This may be attributed to the benefits of polyphenols, which are beneficial compounds found in wine.
Richard Kazibwe emphasized the importance of considering other factors such as diet and exercise when analyzing the relationship between alcohol consumption and ectopic fat. He suggested that wine drinkers may have better access to healthcare and lead healthier lifestyles compared to non-wine drinkers.
The study’s findings follow a J-shaped pattern, a common visual representation of the increased health risks associated with alcohol consumption. Previous studies have consistently shown that low-moderate alcohol consumption is tied to the lowest cardiovascular risks, while excessive alcohol intake is linked to a higher risk.
The researchers stress the significance of these findings, as both excessive alcohol intake and ectopic fat accumulation are established risk factors for cardiovascular disease. It is crucial for people to be aware of the potential risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption, given the well-documented health concerns it poses.
Cashell Jaquish, Ph.D., a genetic epidemiologist and program officer at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), commented on the study, asserting that the findings further confirm the relationship between drinking and cardiovascular risk. She highlighted the need for additional studies to clarify the role of ectopic fat distribution in the connection between alcohol consumption and cardiovascular disease.
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