For people with atrial fibrillation, abstinence from alcohol may make the heart beat better.

Eliminating most alcohol consumption dramatically cuts the number of episodes of the potentially deadly heart rhythm disturbance among moderate and heavy drinkers, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

While atrial fibrillation (AF), or AFib, reappeared in 73 percent of the people who averaged 13 drinks per week, the rate dropped to 53 percent among patients in the abstinence group — those who weren’t supposed to drink at all but, on average, consumed two drinks weekly.

In addition, among the people trying to abstain, it took longer for their next episode of AFib to occur.

“What this study shows is the potential impact of alcohol reduction or abstinence in people with symptomatic heart rhythm problems,” co-author Peter Kistler of the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne told Reuters Health. People with AFib symptoms who have 10 drinks per week should be advised to abstain or reduce their alcohol use, he said.

“Alcohol is not only a marker of increased risk of AF (as shown before, based on observational studies), but it seems to be also a real risk factor for AF, because if we ‘treat’ (in this case stop taking alcohol), we have a significant reduction in both the AF burden and the recurrence of AF,” Renato Lopes, a professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

AFib occurs when the upper chambers of the heart beat erratically. It is the most common heart rhythm problem and a leading cause of stroke. In some people, it comes and goes. Symptoms include weakness, shortness of breath and palpitations.

Doctors try to treat it by controlling blood pressure and other factors, but the new study “presents a compelling argument for alcohol abstinence as part of the successful management of atrial fibrillation,” writes Anne Gillis of the University of Calgary in an editorial accompanying the study. “Nevertheless, the sobering reality is that for many persons with atrial fibrillation, total abstinence from alcohol may be a difficult goal to achieve.”

The researchers were originally planning to follow patients for 12 months, but they couldn’t find enough volunteers willing to abstain from alcohol for that long. The study ended up enrolling 140 people and lasting six months.

The findings are not completely surprising.

Population-based research had suggested that every drink (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or a 1.5 ounce of distilled spirits) increases the risk of atrial fibrillation by 8 percent. The new randomized trial was designed to be a definitive test.

— Reuters