Alcohol Use and Cardiovascular Health in College Students
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Previous studies suggest that distinct cardiovascular profiles in response to stress and alcohol cues may index risk for alcohol dependence. However, the majority of such studies have focused on older, alcohol-dependent adults, often with co-morbid health conditions. For otherwise healthy young social drinkers, the connections between alcohol use and cardiovascular cue-reactivity, as measured by heart rate variability (HRV), are not as well understood. In the current study, 23 binge drinkers (BD) and 13 non-binge drinking controls (NB) participated in a testing session in which HRV was assessed at rest and in response to visual cues (alcohol versus control images) before and after a timed math stressor. BD and NB groups were hypothesized to exhibit differential sympathetic-vagal balance (SVB) at rest, in response to alcohol cues, and in response to alcohol cues following a stressor. Exploratory analyses of alcohol-related variables and change in SVB to alcohol cues were also conducted. It was hypothesized that the BD group would have a significantly higher SVB, signifying increased sympathetic activity, at rest compared to the NB group. It was also expected that the BD group would have a significantly higher SVB in response to alcohol cues (pre-stress), indicative of increased craving for alcohol, compared to both control picture cues (within group) and compared to the NB group’s response to alcohol cues (between groups). Furthermore, an interaction was predicted, such that during the stress-primed cue-reactivity task, the NB group would have an increase in SVB score, with no differences between picture conditions, while the BD group would have a decrease in SVB score to alcohol cues post-stress, but not to other picture types. Results indicated no significant group differences at rest or during the pre-stress cue-reactivity task. There was a statistically significant interaction post-stress, such that the NB group had a significant increase in SVB post-stress. The BD group did not show this pattern, but rather, exhibited a blunted response to stress. Further, the BD group did not show the hypothesized selective reduction in SVB to alcohol cues post-stress. Exploration of alcohol-related variables revealed that change in SVB to alcohol cues (calculated as post-stress SVB alcohol cue scores minus pre-stress SVB alcohol cue scores) was negatively correlated with the most drinks ever consumed, as well as the social and conformity scales of the Drinking Motives Questionnaire. This suggests that increases in parasympathetic activity to alcohol cues post-stress were related to higher drinking levels and greater endorsement of social and conformity motives, giving further evidence that heavy alcohol use may blunt the stress response in young adults. Overall, the results indicate that the NB group experienced a normal stress response, while the BD group appears to have a blunted stress response. These results are intriguing and warrant further research in a larger and more diverse sample of young adults who engage in binge drinking.