People who drink heavily – at least four drinks a day – may be at risk of suffering a brain hemorrhage at a relatively early age, according to a French study.
Researchers whose findings were published in the journal Neurology focused on drinking habits among people who had suffered an intracerebral hemorrhage, a type of stroke where ruptured blood vessels leak blood into the brain.
Among the 540 patients they followed, one-quarter were heavy drinkers before the stroke. Their brain hemorrhage typically struck at the age of 60, versus age 74 among patients who were not heavy drinkers.
“Chronic heavy alcohol intake increases the risk of bleeding at a very young age,” said senior researcher Charlotte Cordonnier, at the University of Lille Nord de France.
Heavy drinkers were not only younger when they had their stroke, but they were also relatively healthy and less likely to have any history of heart disease, stroke or “mini-stroke” symptoms compared to patients who were not heavy drinkers.
Besides suffering brain hemorrhages at a younger age, some of the big drinkers in the study also had a worse prognosis.
When the stroke occurred in a deep part of the brain, heavy drinkers younger than 60 were more likely to die within two years - more than half, as opposed to one third of those who did not drink heavily.
Larry Goldstein, a neurologist not involved in the study, said the findings cannot prove that heavy drinking itself caused strokes at an earlier age.
“There may be other things these individuals were doing that would affect their risk,” said Goldstein, director of the Duke Stroke Center in Durham, North Carolina, and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association.
He pointed out that the heavy drinkers were often smokers as well, with 42 percent smoking compared to 12 percent of the other patients. There may have been additional, unmeasured factors as well.
Still, heavy drinking has long been considered a risk factor for strokes, and Goldstein said there are reasons to believe that heavy drinking itself is the problem.
Heavy drinking can feed high blood pressure and may also affect the blood's ability to clot, which could raise the odds of a hemorrhagic-type stroke.
In this study, heavy drinkers had lower levels of certain substances that allow blood to clot, though those levels were still within normal range.
Even when the researchers accounted for factors such as smoking habits, the heavy drinkers were twice as likely to die.
The bottom line, according to Goldstein, is that moderation is the way to go.
“Excessive alcohol consumption is bad for your brain, in a number of ways,” he said.