Health

Yes, Drinking Affects Your Brain Longterm

But recent headlines blow things out of proportion.
June 7, 2017, 10:13pm
Adam Jaime/Unsplash

Another day, another study on how alcohol affects your body—this time, linking booze to negative effects on the brain, prompting scary headlines like, "Even Moderate Drinking Can Damage The Brain."

Technically speaking, it's true—according to a new study published in The British Medical Journal even moderate levels of alcohol consumption were associated with "adverse brain outcomes," like shrinkage in the hippocampus, the section of the brain associated with memory, as well as cognitive decline. But don't cancel your happy hour plans just yet.

For the study, researchers from the University of Oxford and University College London tracked the alcohol intake of 550 men and women over 30 years beginning in 1985, none of whom were alcohol-dependent. Participants self-reported their drinking habits—those who drank less than one unit of alcohol each week (in the US, that's roughly half a glass of wine) were considered "abstinent." "Light" drinkers had between one and seven units a week, "moderate" drinkers downed 7 to 14 (21 for men), and anything above that was considered "unsafe drinking."

Researchers also measured participants' cognitive abilities six different times during the 30-year study, testing their lexical (ability to name different words beginning with the same letter) and semantic (ability to name different words in a specific category) abilities, as well as their short term memory recall. At the end of the study, researchers also looked at MRI scans of participants' brains.

It turns out, participants who reported higher levels of drinking were more likely to have a shrunken hippocampus, with more pronounced atrophy on the right side of the brain. Though 35 percent of those who didn't drink at all were found to have shrinkage on the right side of the hippocampus, that number rose to 65 percent of those who drank between 14 and 21 units a week, and 77 percent for those who drank 30 units or more. The structural integrity of the brain's white matter was also harmed by more alcohol.


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Those who drank more also performed worse on lexical fluency tests, with a 14 percent reduction in performance over 30 years in those who drank between 7 and 14 units each week, compared to those who drank the least. No negative effects were found, however, for other cognitive tasks like memory recall or semantic abilities. Conversely, researchers found no supporting evidence that light alcohol consumption had any protective effects on brain structure, contradicting common beliefs.

It's all pretty solid research, but there are a few reasons to still take the findings with a grain of salt. First, and probably most important, is that the study is observational, meaning it doesn't prove that alcohol causes damage to the brain, as Elizabeth Coulthard, a consultant senior lecturer in dementia neurology at the University of Bristol, told The Guardian.

Next, the study's participants were mostly men—educated, middle class, civil service workers at that, so the results may not be representative of the entire UK population. And finally, because alcohol amounts were self-reported, they could've been inaccurate, as many people underestimate how much they drink—which could have exaggerated the impact of true moderate alcohol consumption.

Instead of swearing off booze altogether for fear of brain damage, researchers suggest sticking to the recommended alcohol guidelines—14 units each week for both men and women, as suggested by the UK's Department of Health (that's less than the current US guidelines which suggest that up to 24.5 units a week is safe for men). And maybe stop buying into the whole "drinking is actually good for your brain" thing—'cause it's just not.

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