New research, conducted at the University of Montreal in Canada, finds that binge drinking as a young adult might lay the foundation for hypertension later in life.
Binge drinking is already known to harbor a number of negative health consequences. Despite this, it is surprisingly prevalent.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define binge drinking as the consumption of four drinks or more (for women) and five or more (for men) in the space of 2 hours.
An estimated 1 in 6 American adults binge drink four times a month, consuming an average of eight drinks per session.
The age group most likely to indulge in a binge are the 18-34-year-olds. Also, binge drinking is more common in wealthier households where the income is above $75,000, and men are twice as likely to binge drink than women.
The size and scope of this boozy backdrop makes the associated health aspects all the more worrying.
Health effects of binge drinking
Binge drinking has a wide spectrum of well-documented health consequences. It raises the chances of physical injuries from accidents and fights; it also increases the likelihood of STIs and unintended pregnancy. In the longer term, it can induce liver disease, neurological damage, sexual dysfunction and play a role in worsening diabetes.
New research, headed up by Erin O'Loughlin and published this week in the Journal of Adolescent Health, investigates early changes in another health parameter - hypertension (high blood pressure).
The team found that regular binge drinkers in their 20s had higher blood pressure, increasing their risk of developing hypertension.
The study used data from the Nicotine Dependence in Teens study, a cohort of young smokers derived from diverse social backgrounds in and around Montreal, Canada. In total, 756 individuals, aged 20, had their alcohol consumption rated. Four years later, their drinking levels were measured once again along with their systolic blood pressure.
Blood pressure changes in binge drinkers
Systolic blood pressure is a measure of the pressure in the arteries as the heart muscle contracts. In a healthy individual at rest, this should be below 140 mmHg. A measurement of 140/90 indicates a high blood pressure. The second figure is the measure of blood pressure between beats when the heart is at rest.
According to the study's authors, they found that "the blood pressure of young adults aged 20-24 who binge drink was 2-4 mmHg higher than non-binge drinkers."
O'Loughlin says of the results:
"Our findings show that more than 1 in 4 young adults who binge drink meet the criterion for pre-hypertension [...] This is worrisome because this condition can progress to hypertension, which, in turn, can cause heart disease and premature death."
To add an additional level of concern to an already concerning picture, the study found that 85% of the young adults who were drinking heavily at 20 continued this pattern up until the age of 24.
Further study ahead
O'Loughlin told Medical News Today that the team recently received funding from the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute; this will enable them to follow up the same individuals and observe their blood pressure and drinking habits at the age of 30.
This follow-up will uncover whether blood pressure has risen in those who have continued binge drinking; conversely, it will show whether blood pressure returns to normal if drinking habits improve.
The results of the current study appear to be clear cut, but MNT asked O'Loughlin whether there might have been some interference in the data due to the nicotine dependence of the sample group. She said:
"This is speculative, but it's possible that the genetic underpinnings of nicotine dependence and alcohol are similar (i.e., genes relevant to the reward pathways for example). Since both smoking and alcohol affect blood pressure, and since these behaviors often co-occur, there could be an additive or a synergistic effect."
While waiting for the participants to turn 30, O'Loughlin plans to investigate alcohol consumption, tobacco use and obesity from adolescence to adulthood and their accompanying "genetic, individual and contextual risk factors."
The team is currently running a study into the psychological characteristics involved in nicotine and alcohol dependence in adolescents, such as "novelty-seeking, impulsivity, depressive symptoms and anxiety."
As ever, the take-home message, as hackneyed as it sounds, is that moderation is the key to health - especially where alcohol is concerned. MNT recently covered research showing that binge drinking plus chronic alcohol use damages the liver more than expected.