Study finds higher alcohol intake increases fat deposits in heart, other body parts

Human heart shown in front of doctor with hand extended.

Researchers are reporting new evidence that excessive alcohol intake increases fat deposits in the heart and other parts of the body. The study underscores the high cardiovascular risk associated with heavy drinking, they said. 

The observational study used data from the more than 6,000 participants in NHLBI’s Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). The researchers analyzed alcohol consumption patterns in this racially and ethnically diverse group, including light, moderate, and heavy drinking as well as lifetime abstention. They also analyzed fat distribution in various body parts using computed tomography data and compared this to drinking patterns.  

The researchers found that heavy alcohol intake was associated with higher ectopic fat, which refers to fat around organs such as the heart, liver, and intestines. By contrast, the lowest levels of ectopic fat were seen in people who reported light to moderate intake of alcohol, they said. 

“These findings further solidify the relationship between drinking and cardiovascular risk and shed light on specific sub-clinical disease associated with excessive alcohol intake,” said Cashell Jaquish, Ph.D., a genetic epidemiologist and program officer at the NHLBI who works with the MESA study. “Additional studies are needed to further clarify the role of ectopic fat distribution in the relationship between alcohol consumption and cardiovascular disease,” she noted. 

The study, funded by the NHLBI, appeared in the Journal of the American Heart Association.