Share on Pinterest
New research suggests that alcohol use beginning at age 17 can lead to measurable heart damage by age 24. Smoking can make this even worse. Alto Images / Getty Images
  • Our arteries naturally stiffen with age, but certain habits or behaviors can worsen this process.
  • New research has found that drinking and smoking between the ages of 17 and 24 can accelerate stiffness in the arteries by as much as 10 percent.
  • The heavier young adults’ use of alcohol and tobacco was, the worse their arterial stiffness. This was more significant in women.
  • This acceleration in stiffness is problematic as it can increase the risk of heart disease or lead to stroke later in life.

As we age, our arteries naturally become less elastic, a condition associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

New research presented at the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) 2021 has found that drinking alcohol from adolescence to young adulthood can accelerate this process and significantly increase cardiovascular disease risk later in life.

Findings also suggest that combining smoking and drinking for this age group had an even greater impact on health.

“Cardiovascular disease (CVD) remains a vast global burden on public health, and while both acute and pharmacological interventions have massively improved in living memory, the next and most important step is to target primary prevention of CVD via optimizing modifiable risk factors including smoking and alcohol use,” study author Hugo Walford, a medical student at University College London, told Healthline.

Walford’s study included 1,655 participants ages 17 to 24 from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC).

Researchers measured the alcohol consumption and smoking habits of the participants at age 17 and then at 24.

For their alcohol consumption, participants were made to choose from the options “never,” “medium” (defined as four drinks or fewer on a typical day of drinking), and “high” (defined as more than five drinks on a typical drinking day).

For their smoking habits, participants chose from “never,” “past (smoker),” “medium” (fewer than 10 cigarettes a day), and “high” (10 or more cigarettes daily).

Using a technique called carotid-femoral pulse wave velocity, which is considered a strong predictor of future cardiovascular disease, especially in young people, researchers assessed the participants’ arterial stiffness 7 years apart.

Results indicated that arterial stiffness increased an average of 10.3 percent from age 17 to 24. Women were slightly more affected by this than men.

The more alcohol a person consumed, the stiffer their arteries became, but those with an average smoking score did not experience significant stiffening. Ex-smokers and “never” smokers had similar levels of arterial stiffness.

However, “high intensity” smokers did show more arterial stiffness than never smokers, but this was only statistically significant in women.

Dr. Michael Goyfman, director of clinical cardiology at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in Queens, New York, told Healthline that drinking causes numerous health issues.

“It can damage the liver, including [causing] cirrhosis; the heart, [leading to] heart failure and arrhythmias; and the brain [by causing] dementia,” he said, adding that it can also damage the pancreas, weaken the immune system, and increase risks of certain cancers.

Walford said he wasn’t surprised by the findings, as they build on previous evidence showing similar results.

Smoking rates across the United States have been falling in recent years, but vaping presents another health challenge.

“Binge drinking is often a normal experience for students, and a falling smoking prevalence in the U.K. is challenged by a sharp rise in e-cigarette use,” Walford said in a statement.

Patricia Folan, RN, DNP, director of the Center for Tobacco Control for Northwell Health in Great Neck, New York, warned those who believed vaping was a better alternative to smoking.

“It has not been demonstrated that vaping is a healthier alternative to smoking,” she said. “Nearly 3,000 individuals have been hospitalized due to lung infections and other health issues linked to vaping.”

She added that similar to smoking cigarettes, vaping has also been shown to cause blood vessels to become more rigid and decrease blood flow.

Walford said these findings show drinking and smoking put young people on a life-course trajectory that may eventually lead to heart disease and stroke.

“Our novel findings show measurable changes in young people when other established biomarkers such as blood pressure show no differences between participants,” he confirmed.

Asked whether quitting drinking and smoking might reverse damage caused by these habits, Folan said studies show people who quit have less stiff vessels than those who don’t quit, which can lower their risk of heart attack and stroke.

“It is never too early or late to quit,” she emphasized. “Benefits of quitting are always better breathing, improved cardiac function, better blood flow.”

According to Goyfman, even if damage due to smoking or drinking becomes permanent, “it could keep progressing further with continued use.”

He said there’s virtually no point at which it’s too late to quit, “as we begin to see some physiological changes within the first year of stopping.”

According to Walford, heavy episodic drinking and smoking by young people are often justified by the belief that “they are temporary and associated with the freedom of young adulthood.”

But he emphasized it’s important to identify the clinical effects these behaviors are having on young people, and then implement public health policies to reduce consumption.

“I hope my results contribute to this ever-growing body of evidence to eventually help prevent CVD,” he said.

New research from the United Kingdom suggests that alcohol use beginning at age 17 can lead to significant arterial damage by age 24 — and that smoking can worsen this.

Experts say drinking can damage major organs and affect long-term cognitive health, and quitting these habits is the first step in improving your health.

They also stress the need to implement better public policies that further reduce alcohol and tobacco consumption to help prevent cardiovascular disease.