A recent study suggests that even “moderate” levels of drinking can adversely affect nearly every part of the brain.
Using the UK Biobank, researchers analysed data from 25,378 participants including age, sex, education, self-reported alcohol consumption, brain size and health from MRI scans, information about hospital and outpatient visits, and memory tests.
The study found that a higher volume of alcohol consumption per week was associated with lower grey matter density, with alcohol explaining up to a 0.8% change in grey matter volume. Although this may seem like an insignificant figure, it is substantially higher than any of the other modifiable risk factors. For example, it is four times the contribution of smoking, or BMI (Body Mass Index).
Anya Topiwala, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Oxford and lead author of the study, said: “There’s no threshold drinking for harm – any alcohol is worse. Pretty much the whole brain seems to be affected – not just specific areas, as previously thought.”
In 2016, the Department of Health introduced new alcohol guidelines in the UK, recommending that men and women drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week. However, Topiwala said that the new study shows evidence of harm below this threshold.
Prior research has also suggested that there are some benefits to drinking wine in moderation, compared to beer or spirits. However, this new study found no evidence to indicate that different types of alcohol present different risks to the brain.
The findings are more convincing than many alternative assumptions, said Colin Angus, a senior research fellow from the Alcohol Research Group at the University of Sheffield.
“In the grand scheme of things, these effects appear small, although it’s hard to compare them against the impact of alcohol on other health outcomes, such as increased risks of cancer, without further research to understand how the association between alcohol and brain health feeds through into more tangible outcomes, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s.”
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