Doctors in heart and emergency hospital wards have begun to see a new problem associated with holiday drinking - Holiday Heart Syndrome.
The syndrome, a medical term for "condition," refers to the sudden appearance of heart problems, especially heart rhythm disorders, either in heavy drinkers who have never had heart disease or in normal drinkers who have gone on a holiday or weekend binge.
The growing recognition of the condition is described in a draft version of a report yet to be presented to Congress by the National Institute of ALcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Dr. Ernest K. Noble, director of the institute, said this week, "This is one of the problems we can expect to see New Year's weekend. It's one of the reasons we want people to enjoy themselves, to have some drinks, but to take care."
Among those who should take special care, he said, are pregnant women, The depressed, normally heavy and normally light drinkers and anyone who drives - in short, just about everyone.
There is growing scientific recognition, Noble said, that "intoxication is not just a matter of getting drunk, as so many people think," but a profound chemical change that can affect many parts of the body, including the heart.
The most thorough report on Holiday Heart Syndrome was published this year in a medical journalcalled Current Problems in Cardiology, edited at Georgetown University.
The article's main author, Dr. Timothy Regan of the New Jersey College of Medicine, said this week, "We probably get about 12 or 14 cases a year at our hospital." Those numbers indicate perhaps hundreds of cases throughout the country, "many of them probably unrecognized" as alcohol-linked, he said.
In four years of study, Regan and colleagues saw in 24 patients serious heart rhythm disorders, the kind that sometimes are fatal. The 24 persons were habitually heavy drinkers who drank large amounts on weekends.
Nineteen of 32 cardiac emergencies involving the 24 patients occurred between Sunday and Tuesday, with Monday hospital admission most common. Of the 13 nonweekend admissions, six were between Dec. 24 and Jan. 1.
Thus, Regan said, "25 of the 32 episodes could truly be considered examples" of Holiday Heart Syndrome, "a name that has been used at our institutions to describe them" and a name now officially noted by the National Alcohol Abuse Institute, a part of the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
Such cardiac arrhythmias also can occur in nonalcoholics, according to Regan and Dr. Proctor Harvey, Georgetown's cardiology chief and editor of the cardiology journal.
Regan told of an otherwise healthy woman, 52, who reported drinking only one cocktail a few hours before cardia arrythmias. Two nonalcoholic doctors, ages 31 and 38, developed acute arrhythmias after drinking following work they found stressful.
Too often, Regan said, such arrythmias are misdiagnosed as "idiopathic," meaning of unknown cause, alcohol, particularly over-use, although he said total abstinence is best foranyone with painful coro.
harvey warned against use of nary heart disease. The alcohol institute's report to Congress will say a mere two ounces of whiskey given patients with known heart disease has caused depressed heart function.
Dr. Lawrence Horwitz of the University of Texas at San Antonio reported "markedly reduced" heart capacity in animals given doses of alcohol that result in blood levels well below the usual legal limit for "safe" driving.
"The thing to remember," Noble said, "is that there were 390 auto traffic deaths in the United States last weekend, the long Christmas weekend. There will be an equal number this New Years weekend. And half of all auto deaths are alcohol-connected."
The alcohol institute warned last June that there is proof of increased risk of spontanenous abortions, still-births and birth defects in offspring of women who take more than six alcoholic drinks daily. With any more than two modest-sized drinks daily, there is uncertainty on degree of risk, but caution is advised, the institute said.
For depressed persons whose problems normally increase markedly during holiday periods, Noble warned that drinking can increase tendencies to suicide and that alcohol in combination with other drugs, including prescription tranquilizers or
Noble's advice for the holidays: sedatives, can be fatal.
"Go easy this time of year. Don't make alcohol the whole focus of your celebration."