Even moderate drinking affects the brain

Posted June 07, 2017

Although some studies have argued that light-to-moderate drinking can reduce the risk of dementia and cognitive decline, brain imaging studies have so far come up with contradictory results.

People who drink at even moderate levels may see some of their mental skills slip faster as they age, a new study suggests. A unit is not necessarily the same as a drink - for example, a unit of beer is eight ounces, while a British pint is 16 ounces.

JUST one large glass of wine, or pint a day can lead to brain damage, a new study has found.

Researchers discovered that the moderate group was three times more likely to have hippocampal atrophy compared with people who didn't drink at all. In the USA, heavy drinking is typically defined as consuming 15 drinks or more per week for men and eight drinks or more per week for women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The team of researchers from University of Oxford and University College London went on to say that drinking limit guidelines in Britain at present were in agreement with this study results.

By analyzing brain scans, researchers determined that subjects who drunk the most were more likely to have shrunken brains, particularly having an atrophied hippocampus, a condition that's associated with dementia.

Higher consumption was also associated with poorer white matter integrity, critical for cognitive functioning, as well as a more rapid decline in language fluency, as measured by the number of words beginning with a specific letter that can be generated in a minute.

At present, United Kingdom guidelines say people should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week. Finally, dependent drinking is when the person is addicted to alcohol.

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"We were surprised that the light to moderate drinkers didn't seem to have that protective effect", said study co-author Dr. Anya Topiwala, a clinical lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford.

As the authors point out, "alcohol might represent a modifiable risk factor for cognitive impairment, and primary prevention interventions targeted to later life could be too late".

After adjusting for these factors, researchers were able to work out what impact different levels of alcohol consumption had on a person's brain health.

"In a linked editorial, Killian Welch, consultant neuropsychiatrist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, wrote: "(The) findings strengthen the argument that drinking habits many regard as normal have adverse consequences for health.

The authors pointed out that this is an observational study, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, and said some limitations could have introduced bias.

"This is important. We all use rationalisations to justify persistence with behaviours not in our long term interest".

The health effects of heavy drinking are well-known but as the HSE says the problem with alcohol is "not all about red noses and liver damage". Eric Rimm, director for the program in cardiovascular epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a professor of medicine, argues, "There are so many other lifestyle factors that are not taken into account in this study, like nutrition". Moderate drinkers were also more likely to make errors on a language test, though not on other cognitive tests.

At the end of the day, many of us could probably drink a bit less.