No drink is safe? Study finds any amount of alcohol causes brain damage

OXFORD, United Kingdom — Although an occasional drink may be good for the heart, a new report finds there’s “no safe level” of alcohol consumption when it comes to the brain.

Researchers from the University of Oxford say any amount of drinking leads to the brain’s volume of grey matter shrinking. The findings come from a pre-print study — meaning it has not been peer-reviewed yet — of brain scans examining over 25,000 British residents.

No safe dose of alcohol for the brain was found. Moderate consumption is associated with more widespread adverse effects on the brain than previously recognized,” study author Anya Topiwala and her team writes in medRxiv.

Researchers add brain volume deteriorated even quicker with age and in patients dealing with dementia. Grey matter makes up roughly 40 percent of total brain volume and is part of the central nervous system. Consisting mostly of neuron cells, it helps to process and send information to various parts of the body.

Study authors note alcohol’s effect only appears to account for less than one percent of this shrinking. However, even this much is more than any other “modifiable” behavior that people have control over, unlike aging.

Any type of alcohol damages the brain

While previous studies find some alcoholic beverages (such as red wine) may carry health benefits, the pre-print study did not find any differences in the amount of brain damage caused by consuming various types of wine, beer, or liquor.

However, the team did discover that excessive drinking and poor health put people at greater risk for alcohol-related brain damage. Specifically, people who binge drink or those who are overweight or obese are more likely to have less brain volume after consuming alcohol.

“Individuals who binge drink or with high blood pressure and BMI may be more susceptible. Detrimental effects of drinking appear to be greater than other modifiable factors. Current ‘low risk’ drinking guidelines should be revisited to take account of brain effects,” researchers explain.

No such thing as a healthy level of drinking?

While most if not all scientists agree heavy drinking is bad for human health, the report sparks new debate over the benefits of drinking in moderation. Study authors say even moderate alcohol consumption carries risks since there are currently no cures for neurodegenerative diseases like dementia.

Conversely, previous studies point to the occasional drink being good for the body and the mind. A team with the American College of Cardiology discovered moderate drinking lowers stress-related activity in the brain. This, researchers say, has the added benefit of boosting heart health and warding off cardiovascular disease.

Currently, health officials believe one daily alcoholic beverage is safe for women and two are safe for men.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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