New research from the US finds that otherwise healthy young adult college students who regularly binge drink, that is consume a lot of alcoholic drinks in a short space of time, show damage to blood vessels similar to that caused by high blood pressure and cholesterol, both factors known to increase risk for heart disease later in life.

Senior author Shane A. Phillips and colleagues, write about their findings in a paper published online this week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

In a statement, Phillips, who is associate professor and associate head of physical therapy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says:

“Regular binge drinking is one of the most serious public health problems confronting our college campuses, and drinking on college campuses has become more pervasive and destructive.”

“Binge drinking is neurotoxic and our data support that there may be serious cardiovascular consequences in young adults,” he adds.

Previous studies have found that binge drinking among adults aged 40 to 60 is tied to a raised risk for stroke, sudden cardiac death and heart attack, but the effect in younger groups had not been investigated.

Binge drinking rates are highest among students at college and young adults aged 18 to 25 years, Phillips and colleagues write in their background information. On college campuses it is estimated that more than half of students binge drink on a regular basis.

So the team set out to discover what effect a history of repeated binge drinking might have on the blood vessel (“macrovascular and microvascular endothelial”) function of young adults in college.

The researchers defined binge drinking as consuming 5 or more standard alcoholic drinks in the space of two hours in men and four or more in women.

Drinking this amount in such a short space of time is likely to lead to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08g/dL, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

A standard alcoholic drink is the equivalent of 12 oz (355 ml) of regular beer, 8-9 oz (245 ml) of malt liquor, 5 oz (140 ml) of table wine, or a single “shot” of 80 proof spirits (1.5 oz or 43 ml of “hard liquor”).

For the study, Phillips and colleagues recruited 36 male and female colleges students aged between 18 and 25 years. 17 of the participants were “abstainers”, who had consumed no more than five alcoholic drinks in the previous year, and 19 were “binge drinkers”, whose drinking pattern on average comprised six episodes of binge drinking a month over the previous four years.

The researchers asked the participants about their diet, medical history, and whether there was a family history of alcohol abuse.

And to assess how well their blood vessels performed, they also took measures of “macrocirculation and microcirculation”:

“We evaluated the cardiovascular profile, brachial artery endothelial-dependent flow mediated vasodilation (FMD), and flow independent nitroglycerin (NTG)-mediated dilation and vasoreactivity of resistance arteries (isolated from gluteal fat biopsies) in abstainers and binge drinkers,” they write.

When they analyzed the results the team found that compared to abstainers, binge drinkers showed impairments in two main cell types that control blood flow: endothelium and smooth muscle cells.

The extent of the changes was equivalent to the blood vessel damage seen in people with a lifetime history of daily heavy drinking and which can lead to hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and other cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack and stroke.

The results also showed that the binge drinkers’ blood pressure and cholesterol levels were no different to that of the abstainers.

However, the changes in blood vessel function seen in the binge drinkers is similar to the changes caused by high blood pressure and cholesterol.

The researchers conclude:

“Alterations in the macrocirculation and microcirculation may represent early clinical manifestations of [cardiovascular] risk in otherwise healthy young binge drinkers. This study has important clinical implications for screening young adults for a repeated history of binge drinking.”

Co-author Mariann Piano, professor and head of the department of biobehavioral health science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says:

“It is important that young adults understand that binge drinking patterns are an extreme form of unhealthy or at-risk drinking and are associated with serious social and medical consequences.”

“Discoveries and advances in many different areas of medical science have cautioned against the notion that youth protects against the adverse effects of bad lifestyle behaviors or choices,” she warns.

The team called for more research to be done to find out if the damage caused by binge drinking in young adulthood can be reversed before cardiovascular disease develops, and also to find out how long it takes to develop after such damage.

In another recently published study, researchers also found that binge drinking alone increases risk for type 2 diabetes, separate from other factors like overeating.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD