The three life stages where alcohol affects brain health the most

Drinking booze during certain life stages is linked to poorer brain health including reduced functioning and dementia.

Laura Hensley 4 minute read December 7, 2020
Alcohol and brain health

A recent study found alcohol is particularly deteremental during three stages of life. Getty

Alcohol at any age can have negative effects on brain health, but researchers have identified three periods in one’s life where booze can be particularly damaging.

A new editorial from experts in Australia and the U.K. suggests that the brain may be extra sensitive to the toxic effects of alcohol at gestation (conception to birth), later adolescence (15 to 19 years old), and older adulthood (over 65). Alcohol exposure during these times of dynamic brain change is linked to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, reduced brain functioning and dementia, respectively.

“Although these patterns of alcohol exposure may be associated with less harm to individuals than sustained heavy drinking, the overall burden of harm in populations is likely to be large,” the researchers wrote in the journal BMJ.

Drinking alcohol while pregnant has long been discouraged as it can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. The degree of birth defects or disabilities can depend on how much alcohol was used — and how often — during the pregnancy. But drinking — even small amounts — while expecting is harmful to the fetal brain, Dr. Tony Rao, one of the report’s authors and a visiting clinical research fellow at King’s College, London, tells Healthing.

“This can have long-lasting effects on intellectual development well into the early teenage years,” Rao says. “For drinking in pregnancy, there is no safe limit and so the safest option is not to drink at all.”

Another period of concern around alcohol consumption and the brain is during teen years, particularly between the ages of 15 to 19, researchers say. The brain is still developing during these years, and research shows it doesn’t finish maturing until a person is in their mid- to late 20s.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), nearly 60 per cent of youth aged 15 to 19 reported drinking alcohol in 2015.

“Teenagers who engage in binge drinking show more long-term problems with their memory than non-drinkers, as brain nerve growth can be reduced by alcohol,” Rao says. “It can also lead to a disruption in connections between a large number of brain areas — which can mean lower educational achievement and social development.”

Older adulthood is associated with brain atrophy — the loss of brain cells — researchers wrote, which speeds up after the age of 65. Alcohol consumption is linked to loss of brain volume in midlife, which may increase the risk of dementia.

“Alcohol-related dementia is most likely to occur in those with several years of heavy drinking, defined as more than 35 standard drinks for men per week and 28 for women, for five years or more,” Rao explains.

“However, it is still possible for people in their 60s and beyond to develop dementia from heavy drinking. This can often occur at lower levels of intake, as the brain becomes more sensitive to the damaging effects of alcohol as we get older.”

Is any amount of alcohol safe?

Alcohol is a depressant that slows down the parts of your brain that affect your thinking, behaviour, breathing and heart rate, CAMH points out. Research shows alcohol is linked to the increased risk of certain types of cancers, such as mouth and liver, as well as other health issues including digestive and heart problems.

There’s been conflicting guidance on what constitutes moderate consumption. The Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction defines it as 10 drinks a week for women — with no more than two drinks a day — and 15 drinks a week for men, with a max of three drinks a day. What’s considered “a drink”? A 12 oz glass of beer with 5 per cent alcohol content, a 5 oz glass of wine with 12 per cent alcohol content, or 1.5 oz of distilled alcohol like gin or rum, at 40 per cent alcohol.

The U.K.’s National Health Service says there is no completely safe level of drinking, but recommends people do not drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week on a regular basis.

In 2018, a large study published in medical journal the Lancet found that no amount of alcohol is safe or improves health.

Are any forms of alcohol “better” than others?

Are all booze created equal? A glass of red wine has long been touted as “being good” for your health, but that assertion has crumbled in recent years. While there’s some research to suggest red wine could have heart benefits, health experts say it’s not a good idea to drink with the belief that you’re improving your health.

Experts told Bustle that dark alcohols contain a higher number of congeners — chemical substances that occur during the fermenting process — which can worsen hangovers than clear drinks.

But, as the Mayo Clinic points out, drinking large amounts of alcohol, clear or otherwise, can cause “dehydration, low blood sugar, digestive irritation and disturbed sleep.” In other words, a hangover.

Laura Hensley is a writer with

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