Even moderate drinking linked to changes in brain structure

Even moderate drinking linked to changes in brain structure

Perhaps most concerning, moderate drinkers were also three times more likely than non-drinkers to experience a shrinking of the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory.

It says both men and women shouldn't drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week, that's equivalent to a bottle and a half of wine or 5 pints of export-type lager (5% abv).

"People should be skeptical of the idea that it's actually healthy, and treat alcohol with respect", said Tim Stockwell, director of the Center for Addictions Research at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, Canada.

These findings back up the recent reduction in alcohol guidance in the United Kingdom to 14 units a week for men and women (about five pints of beer at 5% ABV strength).

In Ireland, the weekly alcohol consumption guidelines are up to 11 standard drinks in a week for women up to 17 standard drinks in a week for men.

Most significantly, the study found that moderate drinkers - people who have one drink daily - also had a high risk of hippocampal atrophy.

How was the study carried out?

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They analyzed the information of the diseases and social behavior of many patients from the Whitehall II study over 30 years from 1985 and studied how all the patients cope up with routine brain function tests and MRI scans.

While those consuming over 30 units a week were at the highest risk compared with abstainers, even those drinking moderately (14-21 units per week) were three times more likely to have hippocampal atrophy compared with abstainers. The heavier drinkers saw a faster decline in language skills and had poorer white matter integrity, which is crucial to processing thoughts quickly. The participants, most of whom are white, middle-class men, took short cognitive tests and wrote down their drinking histories beginning at an average age of 43. The study authors categorized people as abstinent (a unit or less per week), light drinkers (between one and seven units per week), moderate drinkers (women who had between seven and 14 and men who had between seven and 21 units per week) and unsafe drinkers (people who exceeded moderate drinking amounts). How many is too many?

While the study was not created to show cause and effect, the results can not be taken as proof that moderate drinking hastens brain decline. Finally, dependent drinking is when the person is addicted to alcohol.

In addition, those who drank more were found to fare worse on a test of lexical fluency.

In a linked editorial, Killian Welch, consultant neuropsychiatrist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, said these findings "strengthen the argument that drinking habits many regard as normal have adverse consequences for health". "We all use rationalisations to justify persistence with behaviours not in our long term interest".

Their findings showed even drinking moderate amounts of alcohol-between 14 and 21 units-had a negative impact on cognitive function and harmful changes to the brain structure.

While Topiwala acknowledges that more research is needed to confirm the findings, she said the study has important public health implications. While multiple previous studies have made this seductive claim, most of the research didn't control for key variables such as IQ and physical activity.

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