As the school year starts, here’s what to know about how binge drinking affects your health.
In just a few short weeks, colleges across the country will begin the fall semester. With the excitement of rush week and reunited classmates comes another certainty: binge drinking.
Rates of binge drinking among 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States continue to rise. And while its harmful effects are well-documented, a new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association should serve as a further warning.
New evidence shows that binge drinking actually hurts your heart.
Researchers at the American Heart Association (AHA) looked at the effects of repeated episodes of binge drinking in individuals ages 18 to 45 and found that they are linked to cardiovascular problems.
This includes high blood pressure, higher LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and higher glucose levels in the blood.
“I think this study really was an eye-opener in a sense to say that repeated binge drinking, even if you don’t drink on a regular basis, is just as dangerous,” Dr. Rachel Bond, associate director of women’s heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline. “Any drinking in excess is not good for us.”
Bond, who isn’t affiliated with the study, said peer pressure can also put students at risk.
“Younger adults, particularly college-age students, are leaning towards binge drinking because of either peer pressure or it’s the weekend and they can drink in excess… and in the future they won’t be at risk.”
While the research doesn’t explicitly single out college-age students, both young adults and those in middle adulthood are typically underrepresented in studies on alcohol and cardiovascular health.
In older individuals, binge drinking — which is classified in the study as drinking four or more standard drinks in a session for women, five or more for men — is associated with an increased risk of heart attack. Its effects on younger individuals haven’t been well-studied, in part due to the notion that younger individuals are “healthy.”
“Young adults think they are healthy, and practitioners think the same thing. You just don’t think it’s possible that they might be developing cardiovascular risk factors at this young age,” said Mariann R. Piano, PhD, RN, associate dean for research at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing and lead author of the study.
“We know that at a young age it’s really critical to think about taking care of yourself in terms of being heart healthy,” she said.
According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 1,825 college students die from accidents and injuries related to binge drinking annually. Hundreds of thousands of assaults and nearly 100,000 sexual assaults per year are also linked to the behavior. It’s associated with academic problems and alcohol misuse as well.
However, until now, the effects of repeated binge-drinking episodes on cardiovascular health hasn’t been examined thoroughly.
Piano and her team analyzed data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) for men and women from the years 2011 to 2012 and 2013 to 2014. The study included responses from 4,710 individuals.
Individuals were divided by sex into three categories based on their binge-drinking behavior in the past year: no binge drinking (abstainers), 1 to 12 incidents of binge drinking, and 12 or more incidents of binge drinking.
Men who binged had higher systolic blood pressure compared with abstainers. And the group with the highest rate of binge drinking also demonstrated the highest blood pressure.
Male binge drinkers also had higher levels of cholesterol, including LDL cholesterol, compared with abstainers.
High blood pressure in individuals under the age of 45 is associated with higher risks of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, later in life.
For reasons the authors admit they can’t explain, the same results weren’t observed in female binge drinkers. But one significant observation was noted in women who binge drank: elevated blood glucose levels, which, Bond warns, puts them at elevated risk of diabetes later in life.
“We in the cardiology world have done a really good job of lowering the rates of high blood pressure, which we know is actually a very common risk factor for heart disease, but we haven’t done such a good job in the young,” said Bond.
The study further emphasizes the need for greater education and awareness of the cardiovascular dangers of binge drinking among young adults. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, almost 60 percent of college students ages 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the past month, and almost two-thirds admitted to binge drinking during that time frame.
“To get people to change their habits and have them recognize that things are harmful takes way more than just understanding what some negative health effects might be,” said Piano.
Experts say this study’s conclusions on heart health are just one more reason to put an end to binge-drinking culture — but the fight is clearly an uphill battle.