While there may be heart-healthy benefits for light drinking, moderate and heavy drinking in old age can take a toll on the heart, according to a new study in an American Heart Association journal.

Among older Americans, the more volume people drank the greater the subtle—and negative—changes to the heart's structure and function, researchers reported. Increasing alcohol intake was linked to heart muscle thickness and to lower pumping capacity.

Researchers said women appeared to be more susceptible to negative consequences of drinking.

The study divided 4,400 participants with an average age of 76 into four groups: nondrinkers, those who drank seven or fewer drinks a week, those who drank seven to 14 drinks a week, and those who drank more than 14 a week. As the amount of alcohol increased, the greater the potential damage to the heart.

"In spite of the potential benefits of low alcohol intake, our findings highlight the possible hazards to cardiac structure and function by increased amounts of alcohol consumption in the elderly, particularly among women," said Alexandra Gonçalves, PhD, lead author of the study and a research fellow at Brigham and Women's in Boston.

The study appeared in Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging. Moderate drinking is defined as two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.