Drinking and Brain Health

Drinking and Brain Health

With so many American’s battling addiction to alcohol (20 million-plus as of this writing), many in the medical community have been anxious to better understand alcohol’s long-term effects on the brain.

In a new paper in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), researchers from Australia and the U.K. offer interesting insights[i].

According to the research team, they have pinpointed three stages in life when the adverse effects of alcohol are likely to be greatest.

The first stage is during gestation, from conception to birth. Heavy alcohol use during pregnancy is known to cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a condition that produces reductions in brain volume and cognitive impairment. It is also known that even low levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy can result in a child having poorer psychological and behavioral outcomes.

The next vulnerable stage in human development is later adolescence, ages 15-19. It is estimated that 20% or more of adolescents in this cohort in affluent countries binge drink (defined as drinking six or more drinks in a single episode). Evidence shows that binge drinking at this age may cause reduced brain volume, poorer white matter development, and a small to moderate reduction in a range of brain functions – particularly cognition.

Older adults, those 65 years and older, represent the third group particularly vulnerable to alcohol consumption’s adverse effects. Alcohol has been shown to cause or contribute to all types of dementia – particularly early-onset dementia. It has also been shown that even moderate alcohol consumption beginning in middle age may reduce brain.

It is hoped that these new insights will lead to far better public health guidance.

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[i] Louise Mewton, Briana Lees, Rahul Tony Rao. Lifetime perspective on alcohol and brain health. BMJ, 2020; m4691