Even moderate drinking could harm the brain

Jeannette Daniel
June 8, 2017

Past studies have confirmed drinking a glass of wine or beer a night is good for your heart and brain. Some experts suggest you shouldn't change your drinking behavior based on this one study, but the results of these brain scans and memory tests for moderate and lighter drinkers were not what researchers expected.

Last year, the British government revised its guidelines for alcohol consumption, lowering the recommended maximum for men and women to 14 "units", or drinks, spread out over a week.

Heavy drinking has been known to cause health problems, specifically damage to the brain.

Researchers used data from a study that tracked 550 health men and women between 1985 and 2015.

The research now published in the BMJ investigates the relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and brain structure and function using MRI scans to study the hippocampus' degeneration (or hippocampal atrophy), grey matter density and white matter microstructure.

And the more a person drank, the more likely they were to have hippocampal atrophy - a form of brain damage that affects memory and spatial navigation, which is regarded as an early marker for Alzheimer's disease.

"There are so many other lifestyle factors that are not taken into account in this study, like nutrition".

The results showed that light, moderate and non-drinkers had similar performances when they were matched for age, sex, education, social class, physical activity, smoking and so on.

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The heavy drinkers have poor language skills and white matter integrity that he required to process the thoughts quickly.

Researchers discovered that the moderate group was three times more likely to have hippocampal atrophy compared with people who didn't drink at all. "These are people who are drinking at levels that many consider social drinkers, so they are not consuming a lot". Higher alcohol use was also associated with faster decline in lexical fluency (vocabulary). They were asked to come up with as many words as they could that began with a particular letter.

However, decline in neither word recall nor semantic fluency was linked to higher alcohol consumption.

The research team - from the University of Oxford and University College London - said their results supported a recent lowering of drinking limit guidelines in Britain, but posed questions about limits recommended in the United States. And none of the findings suggests a need for total abstinence, he said.

Two strong points that could be argued as placing the study in the robust category are the amount of detailed data on potential influencing factors, and that alcohol consumption was measured regularly over a long period.

"Alcohol might represent a modifiable risk factor for cognitive impairment, and primary prevention interventions targeted to later life could be too late", they conclude.

They added, however, that the findings could have important public health implications for a large sector of the population. The study authors categorized people as abstinent (a unit or less per week), light drinkers (between one and seven units per week), moderate drinkers (women who had between seven and 14 and men who had between seven and 21 units per week) and unsafe drinkers (people who exceeded moderate drinking amounts).

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