Alcohol and cardiovascular diseases: a historical overview

Novartis Found Symp. 1998:216:2-12; discussion 12-8, 152-8.


Evident disparities in relationships make it desirable to consider several disorders separately. (1) Alcoholic cardiomyopathy was perceived 150 years ago, but understanding was clouded by recognition of beriberi and of synergistic toxicity from alcohol with arsenic or cobalt. (2) A report of a link between heavy drinking and hypertension in WWI French soldiers was apparently ignored for > 50 years. Epidemiological and intervention studies have now firmly established this association, but a mechanism remains elusive. (3) The 'holiday heart syndrome', an increased risk of supraventricular tachyarrhythmias in alcoholics, has been widely known to clinicians for 25 years; data remain sparse about the total role of heavier drinking in cardiac rhythm disturbances. (4) Failure of earlier studies to distinguish types of stroke impeded understanding; it now seems probable that alcohol drinking increases risk of haemorrhagic stroke but lowers risk of ischaemic stroke. (5) Heberden reported angina relief by alcohol in 1786, and an inverse alcohol-atherosclerosis association was observed by pathologists early in this century. Recent population studies and plausible mechanisms support a protective effect of alcohol against coronary disease. International comparisons dating back to 1819 suggest beverage choice as a factor, but this issue (the 'French Paradox') remains unresolved.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects
  • Alcohol Drinking / history*
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / epidemiology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / etiology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / history*
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Risk