In many ways, I was a pretty typical pre-med student. I studied hard with hopes of becoming a doctor, and on the weekends I drank socially with good friends. As I got older and passed through medical school and residency, my thirst for alcohol waned considerably. As it turns out, that may have been a good thing for many reasons. I didn't know it at that time, but drinking heavily, even as far back as college, could have increased my risk of heart disease.
New research from the American Heart Association (AHA) reveals that college students who drink excessively can double their levels of something known as C-reactive protein (CRP), a biological marker for inflammation that has been associated with a higher chance of cardiovascular problems. The study asked 25 college students to complete surveys assessing CRP risk factors such as smoking, medication use and alcohol use. In case you're curious (I was), heavy drinking was defined for the purpose of the study as three or more alcoholic drinks at least three days a week or at least five drinks two days of the week. Compared with those of moderate drinkers (two to five drinks at a time, one or two days a week), the CRP levels of heavy drinkers were more than double, placing them in the zone associated with a moderate risk of heart disease.
It is not clear yet whether drinking heavily during your college years means you're setting yourself up for trouble down the line. To answer that, a long-term study would have to follow students once they entered middle age. Still, the concern is significant because some studies do suggest a carry-over effect between past CRP levels and future heart disease.
"If C-reactive-protein levels are predictive of a future risk of heart disease, then students might be beginning a dangerous pattern, [and that's a] reason to be concerned about college-age drinking," warns Elizabeth Donovan, the (apparently precocious) undergrad who co-authored the study. Donovan is studying biology and nutrition at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., and collaborated on the research with adviser Amy Olsen, a professor of nutrition.
Dr. Robert Bonow, a Northwestern University cardiologist and member of the AHA, isn't as sold on checking your levels of CRP. He reminds us that lots of things can cause the number to fluctuate. Besides an illness like a simple cold, other factorsincluding being overweight, smoking or having diabetesare also known to raise CRP levels. Bonow's best advice is not to worry so much about past college drinking and focus instead on controlling current drinking and other variables.
I was surprised to find, though, that becoming a teetotaler is not necessarily the answer to a healthy heart in the future. This research and other studies that have looked at CRP levels in older populations found that nondrinkers (those who have one drink or less a week) actually have higher CRP numbers than those who drink in moderation. Somehow, moderate levels of alcohol may actually help protect against inflammation. And alcohol is known to reduce blood clotting. Also, if you're drinking red wine, there are additional beneficial chemicals in it, such as tannins, which slow down atherosclerosis, and resveratrol, which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects.
With that information in hand, I plan on asking my wife for a hall pass to go out and have a couple of drinks with friends tonight. "It's for my heart, I swear," I'll tell her. With two daughters, a lawn to cut and a dog to walk, I am not optimistic about her response.
Sanjay Gupta's Fit Nation series airs on House Call on CNN, Saturdays and Sundays, at 8:30 a.m. E.T.
With reporting by Shahreen Abedin
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