Long term use of alcohol will shrink your brain.

Celebrating Africa Day in Calgary, Alberta. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Celebrating Africa Day in Calgary, Alberta. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

A recent article in Natural Communications (March 4, 2022) titled “Associations between alcohol consumption and gray and white matter volumes in the UK Biobank”, says there is evidence to show even moderate drinking is associated with changes in brain volume in middle-aged and older adults.

We know heavy alcohol consumption has been associated with brain shrinkage. The new study shows even moderate drinking will shrink your brain. The study was done in the UK. The researchers used multimodal imaging (MRI) data from 36,678 generally healthy middle-aged and older adults from the UK Biobank.

The study shows the negative associations between alcohol intake and brain shrinking are already apparent in individuals consuming an average of only one to two daily alcohol units, and shrinkage increases as alcohol intake increases.

Alcohol use and abuse is a worldwide problem. There is a significant healthcare and economic cost. Alcohol use disorder is one of the most prevalent mental health conditions worldwide with harmful effects on physical, cognitive, and social function. It contributes to cardiovascular disease, liver disease, nutritional deficiency, cancer and accelerated aging.

How do we define chronic heavy alcohol consumption?

Three or more drinks for women and four or more drinks for men on any day is considered heavy drinking. These individuals have lower gray matter volume of the brain. Chronic alcohol drinking also shrinks the white matter of the brain. The article says, “Further, research suggests that the effects of alcohol consumption on brain volume interact with the effects of aging.”

The researchers found individuals who consumed moderate-to-high amounts of alcohol (14 or more alcohol units per week) showed brain atrophy.

The article concludes by saying this study provides additional evidence for a negative association between alcohol intake and brain structure in a general population sample of middle-aged and older adults.

This finding suggests the general recommendation that it is OK for women to have one drink a day and two for men is not valid anymore. Research showed that a daily drink seems to age the brain by two years compared to the brains of those who do not consume alcohol. And if you take two drinks a day your brain will look 10 years older than that of a teetotaller.

What is Canada’s low-risk alcohol drinking guideline?

Health Canada (2012) guideline says you can reduce your long-term health risks by drinking no more than10 drinks a week for women, with no more than two drinks a day most days and 15 drinks a week for men, with no more than three drinks a day most days. You should plan non-drinking days every week to avoid developing a habit.

Is this recommendation valid anymore?

An article in Lancet (No level of alcohol consumption improves health – August 23, 2018) also rejected the notion that any amount of drinking can be healthy. With the new study findings, should Health Canada change its guideline?

In the last two years, due to stress and loneliness imposed by COVID-19 pandemic there has been huge increase in drug and alcohol consumption in Canada and elsewhere. And the effects 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.

Statistics Canada reported alcohol-induced deaths increased in 2020, especially among those under age 65. It is simple. The more you drink, the worse it is for your health. Especially, your brain health. Maintenance of brain health is central to health and wellbeing across the lifespan. Those who are lifetime alcohol abstainers report the highest level of mental well-being and quitting alcohol improves mental well-being.

Finally, we should be careful in recommending moderate drinking that can improve health-related quality of life. Instead of having a drink have an apple. An apple a day keeps the doctor away!

Don’t let your brain shrink. Take care of your gray and white matter. Be safe.

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