Even moderate drinking is bad for your brain

A woman drinking a glass of wine.
Bad news for tipplers: drinking even moderate amounts of alcohol is linked to a decline in brain health.
Credit: Thomas Barwick / Getty

Who doesn’t enjoy a nice glass of red with dinner? Or an occasional beer in the sun? We all know heavy drinking is bad for your brain, but how about moderate drinking? How many is too many?

A research team from the University of Oxford and University College London, led by Oxford’s Anya Topiwala, set out to answer just that.

Their study, published in The British Medical Journal (BMJ), found that drinking even 14–21 units per week was associated with an increased risk of adverse brain outcomes and cognitive decline.

Infographic showing amounts of alcohol contained in various drinks.
Credit: Topiwala et al.

Using data collected from the Whitehall II study, the team compared weekly alcohol consumption and cognitive performance of 550 healthy men and women which were followed over a period of 30 years (1985–2015) and who underwent MRI brain scans at the cessation of the study.

The results revealed an association between higher alcohol consumption and increased risk of developing hippocampal atrophy – a form of brain damage associated with memory loss and disorientation.

While heavier drinkers, consuming 30+ units per week, had the highest risk of hippocampal atrophy, more unexpectedly moderate drinkers, consuming 14–21 units per week, were found to be three times as likely as abstainers to develop the condition.

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.

These findings have far-reaching public health implications for a large proportion of the population and have the potential to influence future policies and recommendation guidelines across the globe.

In an editorial that accompanies the research, consultant neuropsychiatrist Killian Welch writes that these findings “strengthen the argument that drinking habits many regard as normal have adverse consequences for health”.  With this publication, he adds, “justification of ‘moderate’ drinking on the grounds of brain health becomes a little harder.”

It seems that “everything in moderation” may no longer be the best rule to drink by.

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