Drinking alcohol is bad for the brain — no exceptions

Liz Braun 3 minute read March 20, 2022

Alcohol makes your brain shrink.

When it comes to grey matter, the more you drink, the more you shrink.

Nature Communications has published the results of a new study about alcohol and the brain done at University of Pennsylvania, and the suggestion is that even one drink a day can age your poor old brain.

The rule of thumb about moderate drinking being OK (defined as one drink a day for women and two for men) has been tossed out the window, according to the study.

Even moderate amounts of alcohol reduce brain matter. Research results show a daily drink seems to age the brain by two years, compared to the brains of those who do not consume alcohol.

Increase that to two drinks a day (also known as four units of alcohol) and your brain looks 10 years older than that of a teetotaler.

(Even those studies that suggest a glass of red wine is good for the heart are in doubt, according to a report from the American Heart Association News)

Researchers University of Pennsylvania told the Philadelphia Enquirer that they had cut back their own alcohol intake based on the findings.

What distinguished their study (among other things) is access to a large dataset. The U.K. Biobank is a massive resource with genetic and medical information from 500,000 British adults, middle-aged and older; the alcohol study had access to brain MRIs from more than 36,000 adults.

That, said Gideon Nave, a professor and one of the authors of the study, allowed researchers to discern patterns and associations they couldn’t see before.

The study also took into account age, height, sex, BMI, smoking status, socioeconomic status, genetic ancestry, and county of residence, among other things.

The scientists compared the brain shrinkage caused by drinking to the brain shrinkage caused by aging to give perspective on the seriousness of the effects of alcohol. Every additional alcoholic unit per day showed greater aging of the brain and more reductions in grey and white matter.

The results of this study will not be news to other researchers.

The Lancet published a study in 2018 that also rejects the notion any amount of drinking can be healthy.

According to the report, alcohol is the leading risk factor for disease worldwide and accounts for almost 10% of deaths among those ages 15-49.

It states: “We found that the risk of all-cause mortality, and of cancers specifically, rises with increasing levels of consumption, and the level of consumption that minimizes health loss is zero.”

Meanwhile, in Canada and elsewhere, the pandemic has contributed to a huge increase in drug and alcohol consumption.

Alcohol use disorder is on the rise.

A recent public health report (concerning the effect of pricing and taxation on preventable alcohol-attributable deaths) noted that alcohol consumption in Canada for 2014 was associated with approximately 15,000 preventable deaths and 90,000 preventable hospital admissions.

And the impacts of alcohol use on health care, crime, and lost productivity were estimated at $14.6 billion — more than tobacco and all other psychoactive substances combined.

Now Statistics Canada reports that alcohol-induced deaths increased in 2020, especially among those under age 65.

It’s a simple equation: the more you drink, the worse it is for your health.

Nave put that message in a slightly more positive way.

 “The people who can benefit the most from drinking less,” he said, “are the people who are already drinking the most.”


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