- Alcohol consumption, even at a moderate level is associated with risk of adverse damage in brain structure and function.
- It is associated with cognitive decline (i.e. decline in memory and thinking skills).
- The hippocampus (part of the brain associated with memory and reasoning) may shrink due to alcohol consumption.
The harmful effects of alcohol on the body has been an area of interest for researchers in the past and present. A recent British study reveals the damaging effects of alcohol on the brain.
Moderate alcohol consumption is associated with increased risk of structural and functional brain damage, particularly of the hippocampus.
‘This research finds that alcohol consumption, even moderately, can have damaging effects on the structure and function of the brain and that the hippocampus is the most vulnerable area in the brain to the harmful effects of alcohol.’
Thirty-year follow up study of alcohol drinkers
The team conducted research on 527 men and women in their early 40's. The study began in the year 1985. At the start of the research, all participants were healthy and were not dependent on alcohol.
A test was conducted thirty years since the participants enrolled themselves in the study. In the test, participants reported about their alcohol intake and took memory, reasoning, and verbal skills tests. After the test, brain imaging was done with the help of MRI scans.
The team found shrinkage in the hippocampus (the area of the brain associated with thinking and memory). The amount of shrinkage was related to the amount people drank.The size of shrinkage in brain volume was largest for heavy drinkers. Shrinkage was larger among light and moderate drinkers than among teetotalers.
Cognitive decline among moderate drinkers
Heavy drinkers show a more rapid cognitive decline. This thirty years follow-up study also found that in addition to shrinkage of the hippocampus, moderate alcohol consumption also causes damage to gray matter density and white matter misconstruction in the brain.
Participants drinking higher levels of alcohol over the study experienced a faster decline of lexical fluency compared with abstainers. Lexical fluency involves selecting and retrieving information based on spelling (orthography) and has characteristically been associated with frontal executive function, in contrast with semantic fluency, which could depend more on temporal lobe integrity.
Conclusion and policy implications
Alcohol might represent a modifiable risk factor for cognitive impairment. The study provides factors to consider for moderate drinkers.
- Anya Topiwala, Charlotte L Allan et al. Moderate Alcohol Consumption as Risk Factor for Adverse Brain Outcomes and Cognitive Decline: Longitudinal Cohort Study, British Medical Journal doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j2353