Scientists Did a Health Study at Oktoberfest Because Nothing Is Sacred

And they found bad stuff about drinking.

Apr 25 2017, 11:10pm


Bummer news today from the complicated intersection of drinking and heart health. You may have already read that moderate alcohol consumption is linked with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. That there's a connection between the two is relatively settled science, but it doesn't mean that drinking "a pint a day keeps the doctor away" like some kind of magic—drinking does have negative health consequences. Now, a new study suggests a different kind of heart risk: The more alcohol people drank in one sitting, the greater the likelihood they'd develop abnormal heart rhythms. Those irregular beats (called cardiac arrhythmias) can lead to serious problems in the long run including heart failure and stroke.

To suss out the connection, researchers followed beer drinkers at the Munich Oktoberfest—an approach that, given the results, seems borderline sacrilegious. Putting aside the question of sullying a beer festival with downer science, though, the study had an important aim. Heavy drinking over a short period of time has been anecdotally associated with temporary cardiac arrhythmias, even in people with no history of heart problems. It's a phenomenon known as "holiday heart syndrome," but hasn't been well-studied. Mostly, research in this area has been retrospective; that is, researchers ask people to recall how much alcohol they'd had.

For this paper, researchers recruited 3,028 Oktoberfest-goers and followed them as they drank during the 16-day festival in 2015. Heart activity was tracked via electrocardiogram (ECG) recordings made on a smartphone-based device, and a handheld breathalyzer was used to test blood-alcohol concentrations. The participants were generally healthy; most were not heavy drinkers, and their average age was 35.

The results were significant. Among the general population, the prevalence of cardiac arrhythmias is pegged between 1 and 4 percent, but researchers found that 30.5 percent of the study participants had abnormal rhythms. They also noted that for each gram of alcohol per kilogram of blood, the likelihood of a cardiac arrhythmia increased by 75 percent. Previous research had shown a slightly higher rate of arrhythmias among chronic drinkers, but this is the first prospective study to look at the impacts on people drinking a lot at one time, and it demonstrated a noticeable effect. 

So does this mean that binge drinking leads to heart attacks? Not so fast. Researchers suspect the arrhythmias they observed were temporary; once people sobered up, their hearts would likely return to beating normally. Of course, that's an area for further research, since participants weren't monitored after they left the festival. The researchers did note that people with existing heart disease might have persistent abnormal heartbeats after drinking.

The study does suggest an important link between alcohol consumption and the heart. "Our study will help clinicians and researchers better understand the disordered physiology associated with the condition and we have laid the ground for further research on the subject," Moritz Sinner, assistant professor of medicine at University Hospital Munich and co-leader of the study, said in a statement. 

Just a light topic to mention at your next happy hour.

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