TUESDAY, April 23, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- When college-aged adults binge drink it may hinder the function of their blood vessels, a small new study finds, possibly setting the stage for later heart disease.
"Consequences of binge drinking may extend beyond just a bad hangover, and may actually interfere with the current and future cardiovascular health of young adults," said Shane Phillips, senior study author and an associate professor and associate head of the department of physical therapy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Results of the study were published online April 23 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
More than half of college-student drinkers engage in regular binge-drinking episodes, according to study background information. A binge-drinking episode is generally defined as consuming more than four to five alcoholic drinks in a two-hour period.
Studies on middle-aged and older people have linked binge drinking to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, such as stroke, sudden cardiac death and heart attack. Other studies have found that binge drinking can lead to hardening of the arteries, which may be what contributes to the increased risk of cardiovascular disease, according to the report.
To see the effects of binge drinking on the blood vessels and circulatory system in young people, the researchers recruited 36 urban college students between the ages of 18 and 25. About half the group participated in binge drinking, and the rest were abstainers -- they didn't drink alcohol at all. None of the study volunteers smoked cigarettes.
The researchers found that the binge drinkers showed signs of changes that could affect their cardiovascular health.
"Repeated episodes of binge drinking in young, healthy adults was associated with changes in the function of the circulation that impacts blood flow. Specifically, there was evidence that two main cells types -- endothelium and smooth muscle -- that work to control blood flow in the circulation were not functioning normally," Phillips said.
"These vascular changes may be a precursor for the initiation and progression of atherosclerosis [hardening of the arteries] and increased vulnerability to cardiovascular disease," he added.
While the study found an association between binge drinking in young adults and possible increased risk of future heart disease, it did not establish a cause-and-effect relationship.
The author of an accompanying journal editorial explained the study findings further.
"The researchers saw a signal for vasoconstriction [when blood vessels constrict] in the binge drinkers even after they stopped binge drinking, and were measured three to four days after binge drinking," said Dr. Robert Vogel, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, Denver.
"Alcohol is a very complex drug. Your blood pressure goes down while you have alcohol in your system, but your blood pressure goes up the day after drinking. We don't understand exactly why that is, but alcohol is often forgotten when doctors are assessing for [high blood pressure]," Vogel said.
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a preventive cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said, "Binge drinking is a true public health problem on college campuses. Even in these young people, binge drinking was associated with changes to the lining of the arteries associated with heart disease," she noted.
"Perhaps when discussing binge drinking on college campuses, providing this information on the ramifications of this unhealthy behavior on arterial health can help in managing this destructive behavioral choice," she suggested.
For his part, Dr. Scott Krakower, an addiction specialist at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Mineola, N.Y., said he wasn't surprised that there's a potential link between college-age binge drinking and cardiovascular disease. The challenge is getting students to do something about it.
"Most college students do not realize the psychological and medical implications binge drinking can have, and often believe that they are invincible," Krakower said.
To learn more about alcohol's effect on the body, visit the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.