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Alcohol Can Shrink Your Brain—Even Within “Safe” Drinking Limits

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safe drinking limits and the brain

Did you know your brain shrinks as you get older? It’s a rather disturbing thought, but it’s all part of aging. The volume of our brains decreases about 5 percent per decade after age 40. Then, after age 70, the rate of decline increases. 

But recent research also suggests that factors like exceeding safe drinking limits mimic the brain volume loss caused by aging, dramatically speeding up the process.

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Does Brain Size Really Matter?

safe drinking limitsYes, researchers have found that brain size does matter. Studies have established that “greater gray matter volume is associated with better cognitive performance.”

Decreases in the volume and density of the brain “have been associated with reduced cognitive performance on specific tasks.”

If our cognitive abilities shrink along with our brain, we don’t want to do anything to speed up that process, right?

Well, recent research shows that even moderate drinking as defined by standardized safe drinking limits can make our brains smaller. With every sip, we might be speeding up the aging process! 

How Safe Are the Current “Safe” Drinking Limits for Your Brain?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) dietary guidelines define moderate drinking as limiting intake to two drinks or less per day for men and one drink or less per day for women. The guidelines also point out that drinking less is better for your health than drinking more.

These guidelines have been used to set “safe” drinking limits. Based on these recommendations, many assume that it’s safe for all men to have up to two drinks as often as every day and all women to have up to one drink every day. 

The CDC’s classification of this consumption as “moderate” would appear to imply that this level of drinking has no danger of addiction, mental health symptoms, or progressive alcohol-related disease.

The latest research does not support this assumption. It flies in the face of those numbers. 

The study, led by the University of Pennsylvania, linked reduced brain matter to drinking even a few glasses of alcohol per week. Based on these results, even “moderate” drinking, as defined by the CDC, speeds up the aging of our brains, making them smaller.

How Many Years are You Sacrificing for an Extra Beer?

Existing research, including the studies that influenced the current safe drinking limits, was based on relatively small datasets. These studies suggested that light drinking might not impact the brain or could even offer health benefits. 

For this study, researchers looked at the brains of 36,000 adults. Using this massive number of study subjects, the University of Pennsylvania researchers came to different conclusions.

Gideon Nave, study author and faculty member at Penn’s Wharton School explains:

The fact that we have such a large sample size allows us to find subtle patterns, even between drinking the equivalent of half a beer and one beer a day. Having this dataset is like having a microscope or a telescope with a more powerful lens. You get a better resolution and start seeing patterns and associations you couldn’t before.

The researchers used biomedical data from the U.K. Biobank and responses to surveys about participants’ alcohol consumption. They compared participants’ scans with images of typical aging brains, controlling for variables such as sex, age, height, handedness, socioeconomic status, smoking status, county of residence, and genetic ancestry. 

They discovered the following correlations for 50-year-old participants:

  • Increasing alcohol consumption from one unit to two units per day (e.g., from half a beer to a pint of beer or a glass of wine) = 2 years of aging on the brain
  • Increasing from two units to three alcohol units = 3.5 years of aging on the brain
  • Increasing from zero to one unit = 6 months of aging on the brain
  • Going from zero to four drinks per day = 10 years of aging on the brain

Are There Really Safe Drinking Limits for Your Brain?

safe drinking limits“The people who can benefit the most from drinking less are the people who are already drinking the most,” Nave noted.

And maybe we want to rethink the current standards for “safe” drinking–at least if minimizing brain shrinkage is the goal.

Researchers admit there are limits to this study. Research that follows young people as they age may help determine cause rather than simply show correlation. And they aren’t sure how the effects of average consumption per week might differ from binge drinking

Nave admitted, “This study looked at average consumption, but we’re curious whether drinking one beer a day is better than drinking none during the week and then seven on the weekend. There’s some evidence that binge drinking is worse for the brain, but we haven’t looked closely at that yet.”

Meanwhile, these initial findings seem to support the recent World Heart Federation statement that there is “no level of alcohol consumption that is safe for health” for your heart. The same may be true for your brain.

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How Are Safe Drinking Limits Helpful?

While the research into safe drinking limits is in its early stages, these guidelines can help you keep track of your alcohol use. 

If you find that you have trouble controlling how often or how much you drink, this may be a sign of alcohol addiction. Trying and failing to stick to safe drinking limits or a “drinking plan” can also be a warning sign. Consider scheduling a screening or assessment.

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