What would normally be classified as "moderate" drinking by senior citizens might be damaging to their hearts, new research suggests.
Seniors consuming two or more drinks a day may be doing some harm to their hearts, and that risk is even higher for elderly women than for men of the same age, the researchers say.
Moderate drinking is generally defined as two drinks a day for men and one drink per day for women.
"In an elderly population, increasing alcohol intake is associated with subtle alterations in heart structure and function, with women appearing more susceptible than men to the toxic effects of alcohol," says study leader Dr. Alexandra Gonçalves at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
In the study involving over 4,400 adults of an average age of 76, women who drank even in moderation — just one daily drink — displayed a small reduction in heart function, the researchers report in Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging, a journal of the American Heart Association.
Some previous research has suggested light to moderate drinking may protect against some forms of cardiovascular disease, a fact pointed out by some experts.
"While heavy consumption of alcohol can result in heart disease and heart failure, a number of studies have suggested that light to moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a lower risk of heart attacks and strokes compared to nondrinkers," says Dr. Gregg Fonarow, a cardiology professor at UCLA.
Still, the new study, with its apparent finding of a link between moderate alcohol intake and changes in the size, configuration and movement of different components of the heart, raises a potential red flag when it comes to the elderly, Gonçalves says.
"In spite of potential benefits of low alcohol intake, our findings highlight the possible hazards to cardiac structure and function by increased amounts of alcohol consumption in the elderly, particularly among women," she says.
The study is yet more evidence, if any was needed, that those who drink should not overindulge, she adds.
"This reinforces the U.S. recommendations stating that those who drink should do so with moderation," she says.
The American Heart Association has always recommended that people who drink should limit their alcohol intake. It also cautions against taking up alcohol strictly for potential heart benefits.