Research suggests that heavy drinking during the college years, in Dallas, Houston and elsewhere in Texas, takes its toll on the heart. In a 2007 study, college students who regularly drank to excess had above-normal levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a blood marker for systemic inflammation long linked to cardiovascular illness.
But the news is not all bad. Moderate drinkers actually had lower, healthier CRP readings than those who drank little or no alcohol, the study also found.
Researchers noted that although high C-reactive protein levels are associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease in older people, they weren’t sure this would apply to a younger population. But if C-reactive protein levels are predictive of future risk for cardiovascular disease twenty or thirty years down the road, then it appears college-age individuals may be beginning this dangerous pattern — which is a substantial reason to be concerned about heavy drinking.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), CRP levels rise when body-wide inflammation kicks in following an injury or infection. Inflammation is thought to play a critical role in atherosclerosis, the build-up of fatty deposits on the lining of the arteries.
Although the exact link, if any, between high CRP levels and heart disease remains unclear, an AHA review of recent studies suggests that patients with elevated CRP are more likely to suffer an initial or recurrent heart attack or stroke. They are also less likely to survive these attacks. In addition, high CRP levels raise the risk that arteries will close back up following surgical intervention.
Using AHA standards for assessing CRP-associated risk, researchers defined the low risk for cardiovascular disease as having less than one milligram of CRP per liter of blood. A CRP level of one to three milligrams was interpreted as bearing moderate risk, while anything above three milligrams was equated with high risk.
The researchers then asked 25 college-age men and women to complete surveys concerning their drinking habits, smoking habits, medication use, and recent weight loss — behaviors which can all affect CRP levels.
The students were then categorized into one of three groups: non-drinkers – who consumed one or less drinks per week; moderate drinkers — two to five drinks a day over the course of one or two days per week; and heavy drinkers, — three or more drinks a day, at least three days a week. Heavy drinkers also included people who binge-drank, consuming five or more drinks at one time, at least two or more days per week.
Blood tests revealed that students were at low risk of heart disease, with an average CRP of 0.9 milligrams per liter of blood. However, heavy drinkers had a CRP average of 1.25 mg, suggesting they were at moderate risk for future heart disease.
On the other end of the scale, moderate drinkers fell into the low-risk group, with CRP averaging just 0.58 milligrams/liter.
Infrequent drinkers and non-drinkers were in the middle, with an average CRP of 0.85 milligrams/liter.
Overweight male students, and male and female students with a family history of heart disease, had higher CRP readings. Students who ate relatively high levels of fruits and vegetables had lower CRP levels than those who did not, the researchers found.The research team emphasized that any link between heavy drinking in youth and long-range cardiovascular risk needs further corroboration. The team also noted that the relatively small study did not track student health over a long period of time but rather relied exclusively on a self-report of current drinking habits.
“Everything in moderation.” Truer words were never spoken, especially when it comes to alcohol consumption.
What you put in your body when you’re young will certainly affect your health when you get older. Eventually, it will also affect your wallet.
Pat Carpenter writes for Precedent Insurance Company. Precedent puts a new spin on health insurance. Learn more at Precedent.com