The elderly might want to lay off the alcohol, based on a new study that describes the serious consequences of just one or two drinks per day. Harvard Medical School researchers surveyed 4,466 people with an average age of 76 who also underwent heart scans, and found minimal alcohol intake actually changed the structure of the heart in both men and women, NBC News reports. The small change made the heart less efficient, and its structure and function suffered greater changes the more people drank. Women were found to be especially vulnerable to alcohol's effects, "which might potentially contribute to a higher risk of alcoholic cardiomyopathy, for any given level of alcohol intake," says lead author Scott Solomon, per Science Daily. Cardiomyopathy involves the heart muscle becoming thick and rigid, or replaced by scar tissue.
The left ventricle of the heart, or the pumping chamber, was hardest hit by alcohol and the ventricular wall became enlarged in men who consumed more than two drinks per day; for women, the changes were evident among those who drank just more than one drink daily. This suggests the heart was working in overdrive; such a pace could cause the heart to enlarge and weaken over time, reports Time. "A little bit of alcohol may be beneficial, but too much is clearly going to be toxic," a researcher says. Additional studies will determine whether genetic factors play a role in a person's susceptibility. "What is clear is that at more than two drinks a day is the point at which we start to think we are beyond the safe level for men, and with women, it’s likely to be even lower than that," Solomon tells Time. (Drinking more could also boost your stroke risk.)