Moderate alcohol consumption reduces brain function
Alcohol use is common and while the negative effects associated with ‘binge’ drinking are well documented, there is mixed evidence on the impacts of light to moderate drinking on our health, particularly the brain. Some research has suggested a protective effect associated with light drinking and others have observed negative outcomes. Researchers looked at data across a 30-year period, investigating the association between alcohol consumption, and structural and functional outcomes in the brain.
Thirty years of data from the Whitehall II study were analysed. The Whitehall II study commenced in 1985 in London and involved more than 10,000 civil servants. Alcohol use was assessed and divided into levels of consumption: abstinent (less than one unit of alcohol a week), light drinking (between one and seven units a week), moderate drinking (between seven and 14 units a week for women and seven and 21 units a week for men) and unsafe drinking (14 or more units a week for women and 21 or more units a week for men). Cognitive function and brain structure were assessed via verbal tests and scans. Outcomes assessed included grey matter density (the grey matter includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control and sensory perception), hippocampus structure and cognitive function including lexical fluency (assesses language and executive function) and semantic fluency.
Higher alcohol use was associated with reduced grey matter density, hippocampal atrophy (also a feature of Alzheimer’s disease) and reduced white matter structural integrity. Higher alcohol use was also associated with a faster decline in lexical fluency. No protective effect was observed in association with light consumption when compared to abstinence.
This study shows poor outcomes in both brain structure and function in people with increased alcohol consumption. Furthermore, it found no protective effect associated with light consumption of alcohol. Alcohol is a modifiable risk factor that could be targeted for management, particularly in people at risk of cognitive decline.
Last Reviewed: 13/03/2019
© Norman Swan Medical Communications.
Topiwala, A et al. Moderate alcohol consumption as risk factor for adverse brain outcomes and cognitive decline: longitudinal cohort study. BMJ 2017; 357: j2353 http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j2353.
Light drinking linked to cancer risk
Even 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks a day for male smokers, increases the risk of certain alcohol-related cancers. And women with a family history of breast cancer may be better off not drinking at all.
Alcohol: how much is too much?
Too much alcohol can be bad for you. Find out the recommended limits for men and for women, and for other groups of people such as under 18s, 18-25 year olds, seniors and pregnant women.
Middle-class over-50s are problem drinkers
Problem drinking among successful over-50s is a middle-class phenomenon.
Heavy drinking a risk factor for dementia
Researchers have found heavy drinking is associated with the development of dementia - particularly early-onset dementia.
New UK alcohol guidelines offer little cheer for drinkers
New alcohol guidelines in UK show any level of drinking is linked to cancer.