Women who consume eight or more alcoholic drinks a week are significantly more likely to develop heart disease than those who drink less, researchers have found.

A US study of more than 430,000 adults with an average aged of 44 years and no heart disease at the start also found an increased risk in men but not as pronounced.

The results were presented at American College of Cardiology annual conference in Atlanta, where researchers highlighted the fact the link was found in younger women not usually thought of as being at risk of heart disease.

Overall, 3,108 participants were diagnosed with coronary heart disease during the four-year follow-up and the data showed that the incidence of coronary heart disease increased with higher levels of alcohol consumption.

In women who reported high alcohol intake – classed as eight or more drinks a week –  there was a 45% higher risk of heart disease compared with those who said they had one to two drinks a week. The risk was 29% higher risk compared with those reporting moderate intake of three to seven drinks.

The difference was greatest among those classed as binge drinkers (more than three drinks in a single day), with a 68% increased risk of developing heart disease compared with moderate intake.

In men, the researchers found those with high overall intake – 15 or more drinks a week – were 33% more likely to develop heart disease compared with men who had moderate intake or three to 14 drinks, they told delegates.

The analysis was adjusted to take into account age, physical activity, smoking and other known cardiovascular risk factors and non-drinkers were not included.

There were no significant difference in risk between people who reported moderate versus low alcohol intake, regardless of whether they also fell into the binger drinking category.

Because people are likely to underestimate their drinking when reporting it to a doctor, the figures are likely to be on the conservative side, they added.

Dr Jamal Rana, study leader and cardiologist with The Permanente Medical Group in California, said when it came to binge drinking, both men and women with excess alcohol consumption had a higher risk of heart disease.

But he added: ‘For women, we find consistently higher risk even without binge drinking.

‘I wasn’t expecting these results among women in this lower age group because we usually see increased risk for heart disease among older women. It was definitely surprising.’

He said women can feel they are protected against heart disease until they are older but for the heaviest drinks or those who binge drank they were at risk when younger or middle aged.

The researchers concluded the study highlights the importance of paying attention to the health risks of alcohol consumption in risk assessment and prevention.

‘When it comes to heart disease, the number one thing that comes to mind is smoking, and we do not think about alcohol as one of the vital signs,’ Dr Rana said.

‘I think a lot more awareness is needed, and alcohol should be part of routine health assessments moving forward.’

This article first appeared on our sister title Pulse.