Moderate Alcohol Consumption

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Moderate Alcohol Consumption Found Linked To Adverse Brain Health & Mental Function

According to a new study, even moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with a more rapid decline in brain health and mental functioning.

Researchers noted that while past studies have found a similar link between heavy drinking and conditions such as dementia and brain atrophy (tissue degeneration), research that has focused on moderate drinking has revealed conflicting evidence for an association with adverse brain health.

To determine if there is indeed a link, the research team decided to examine 30 years of data (1985-2015) on more than 500 men and women who participated in the Whitehall II study. On average, subjects were 43 years of age when the study began, and none were dependent on alcohol.

The data analyzed included weekly alcohol use and regular evaluations of brain function and performance. The subjects completed questionnaires and had clinical exams every five years over the study period. Subjects also underwent an MRI brain scan at the study’s conclusion.

When the data was examined, they discovered that higher alcohol consumption was linked to a higher risk of atrophy in the hippocampus, a portion of the brain responsible for memory and spatial orientation.

Brain scans also revealed increased deterioration of white matter and a decline in language fluency with higher levels of alcohol use. The associations remained consistent even after the inclusion of other factors, such as age, sex, education level, medical history, and so on.

While correlation does not necessarily equal causation (cause and effect), the robust nature of the study certainly does offer compelling evidence that there is likely a relationship.

Researchers found that subjects whose alcohol consumption exceeded 30 units per week had the highest risk of hippocampal atrophy, but there was also an association between moderate alcohol consumption (14-21 units per week.) In fact, when compared to non-drinkers, people who consumed alcohol moderately revealed a three-fold risk of hippocampal atrophy.

Authors note that their research supports the notion that alcohol could be a “modifiable risk factor for cognitive impairment, and primary prevention interventions targeted to later life could be too late.”

From the study:

“Our findings support the recent reduction in U.K. safe limits and call into question the current U.S. guidelines, which suggest that up to 24.5 units a week is safe for men…”

Findings were published June 6 in the online journal BMJ.

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology


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