Alcohol: How does it Affect the Heart and Brain?

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Dr. Austin: I'm Dr. Linda Austin. I'm interviewing Dr. Sarah Book who is a psychiatrist at the Center for Drug and Alcohol Programs here at MUSC. Dr. Book there's a lot of talk, and has been for a number of years, about the beneficial effects of alcohol on the heart. Is alcohol good for the heart?

Dr. Book: Alcohol used in moderation can be good for the heart.

Dr. Austin: How is it helpful?

Dr. Book: There are two kinds of cholesterol, good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. And we think that certain types of alcohol may help to increase the good kind of cholesterol.

Dr. Austin: And what are those types of alcohol?

Dr. Book: Mostly wine, and we think that red wine is probably more beneficial than white wine.

Dr. Austin: I know that this is moderate drinking, correct, is good for the heart?

Dr. Book: Right.

Dr. How do you define moderate drinking? When is it too much?

Dr. Book: Alcohol can cause lots of damage to lots of different parts of the body. And when we look at how much alcohol do you need to drink to damage different parts of the body, the dose is pretty much the same, regardless if you're talking about the heart, the liver, the bone marrow, the brain. And that amount for women for example is going to be seven drinks a week, which is about one drink a day, and for men fourteen drinks a week, which would be about two drinks a day.

Dr. Austin: Now, if you drink too much that can actually damage the heart.

Dr. Book: Yes it can.

Dr. Austin: What is that illness called?

Dr. Book: Initially when you drink too much, and for women that would be more than seven drinks a week for probably about five years you can cause structural problems to the heart, in which the heart starts to not work as well because the actual muscle of the heart is what we call dilated.

Dr. Austin: Almost like a big balloon that's overblown?

Dr. Book: That's right. That's right. And over time you can develop what's called alcohol cardiomyopathy, which is really a potentially deadly situation.

Dr. Austin: So that's really an important thing to avoid.

Dr. Book: Yes.

Dr. Austin: You mentioned effects of alcohol on the brain. What are those effects? I'm thinking of older people I know who have been maybe not what you would consider an alcoholic, but heavy drinkers for a long time, and they just have kind of a woozy, vague quality to their thinking.

Dr. Book: That's right. We know from brain imaging studies that this same dose of alcohol that I've been talking about, more than seven drinks a week for women, more than fourteen drinks a week for men, over time actually causes shrinking of the brain.

Dr. Austin: So that's another good reason not to drink too much.

Dr. Book: Yes it is.

Dr. Austin: Thank you so much Dr. Book.

Dr. Book: Thank you Linda.

Dr. Austin: If you have any questions about the services or programs offered at the Medical University of South Carolina, or if you'd like to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians, please call MUSC Health Connection at 1(843) 792-1414. That's 1(843) 792-1414.

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