How Alcohol May Age And Shrink Your Brain

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A new study finds that any amount of alcohol consumption may reduce brain size.

However, there are limitations to the findings. Many other factors, such as your lifetime alcohol use, diet, genetics, and level of physical activity may impact your brain as you age, says Fadi M. Tayim, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist and Division Chief of the Brain Mapping Center at Premier Health’s Clinical Neuroscience Institute.

“I think the general takeaway is that more research is still needed for more conclusive findings, so that they can be used when working with patients,” Dr. Tayim says.

Tracking Daily Drinks And Brain Size

Researchers looked at people around age 50 who drank one, two, or three “alcohol units” a day. An alcohol unit is 10 milliliters of pure alcohol. That’s 1 shot of liquor, 8 ounces of beer, or 3 ounces of wine.

The study finds that people who drank a glass of wine or a pint of beer (both equal to two alcohol units) had brain images that looked two years older than those who consumed half a beer or one alcohol unit.

“The most interesting part of this study is that it attempts to quantify the effect of what we consider non-problematic drinking,” says Dr. Tayim. “This changes the paradigm.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends limiting daily alcohol consumption to two drinks or less for men and one drink or less for women. The study suggests any amount of alcohol can negatively damage the brain.

Published in the journal Nature the study crunched data from 36,600 people who are part of the UK Biobank, which holds detailed health information on 500,000 middle-aged adults.

People in the study shared how much alcohol they drank each week for a year. Then each person had an MRI brain scan. Researchers compared the brain scans to images of typical aging brains. They controlled for such variables as age, sex, smoking status, socioeconomic status, genetic ancestry, and overall head size.

Multiple Factors Impact Brain Health

Scientists and doctors already know that normal aging causes the brain to shrink. They also know chronic alcoholism leads to reduced brain size and some cognitive decline.

What we don’t know is the impact of all the personal variables among study participants, Dr. Tayim says. The study is limited to one year’s worth of drinking data and doesn’t consider how often a person takes part in intellectually stimulating activities.

Alcohol consumption is one piece that can be important to overall brain health, Dr. Tayim says. He points to studies underway in the remote Italian village of Acciaroli, where more than 300 residents are in their 100s.

“These people drink wine every day, eat a Mediterranean diet, and are very physically active,” Dr. Tayim says.

“We know there is a link between what we do with our bodies and how we can promote brain health,” Dr. Tayim says. “Until we know more about alcohol’s relationship to it, I recommend patients practice their better judgment on what level of alcohol use is best for them, including abstaining all together.”

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