Reviewed by Zalman S. Agus, MD; Emeritus Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
CHICAGO, April 19 -- Those habitual college keggers could be chugging toward heart disease later in life, investigators reported here.
In a small study, college students who drank heavily had significantly higher levels of C-reactive protein than those who did not indulge, according to Elizabeth Donovan, an undergraduate researcher at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn.
She and colleagues surveyed 25 college-age volunteers about such things as their drinking habits, medication use, smoking habits and recent weight loss, they reported at an American Heart Association's meeting on arteriosclerosis, thrombosis and vascular biology.
Analysis of C-reactive protein levels showed that six non-drinkers, on average, had a blood level of 0.85 mg. The 10 moderate drinkers had an average level of 0.58 mg, while the nine heavy drinkers had an average of 1.25 mg.
The difference between the moderate and the heavy drinkers was statistically significant at P=0.041, but the difference between the moderate and non-drinkers was not significant, Donovan said.
Overall, however, the average blood level of C-reactive protein was 0.9 mg/dL, which is regarded as low risk, she said: Levels less than 1 mg/dL are associated with low risk for cardiovascular disease, while levels between 1 mg/dL and 3 mg/dL are associated with moderate risk and levels above 3 mg/dL are associated with high risk for future cardiovascular disease.
Donovan and senior researcher Amy Olson, Ph.D., also of the College of Saint Benedict, used reflectance photometry to measure levels of C-reactive protein. Volunteers on oral contraceptives, hormone therapy, cholesterol-lowering therapy or who had a significant recent weight loss were excluded from the study.
The researchers defined a drink as 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol. Using that definition, they divided the volunteers into three groups:
Non-drinkers, who had no more than one drink one day a week.
Moderate drinkers, who typically had two to five drinks, once or twice a week.
Heavy drinkers, who had three or more drinks at least three days a week or five or more drinks in one sitting at least twice a week.
Students who drink heavily or in binges "may be setting themselves up for an increased risk for cardiovascular disease," Donovan said. "This highlights an additional reason to be concerned about heavy drinking in college-age individuals."
The study is "interesting, noteworthy and worth keeping in mind," but is limited by its small size and requires further confirmation, commented Robert Bonow, M.D., of Northwestern in Chicago.
It's also difficult to know whether C-reactive protein levels are the real danger, he said. "People who drink heavily usually don't have that as their only lifestyle misadventure," Dr. Bonow said, and it may that a combination of factors will lead heavy college drinkers to have heart disease later in life.
But the study "does suggest another reason why heavy drinking may not be good for you," he said.
Primary source: Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology
Source reference: Elizabeth Donovan and Amy Olson. "The Association Between Alcohol Consumption and C-Reactive Protein Levels in College-aged Individuals." Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2007;27: