Anya Topiwala, MD, PhD, clinical lecturer in old age psychiatry, department of psychiatry, University of Oxford, UK. The study Dr. Topiwala led, which was published in The BMJ, monitored 550 adults over 30 years, starting in 1985.
Even moderate drinking is bad for the aging brain.
Recent research: Over a 30-year period, people in Great Britain who drank as few as four pints of strong beer or five large glasses of wine (6.2 ounces each) a week were more likely to have atrophy in their brains than people who did not drink alcohol. And the more people drank, the faster their cognition deteriorated.
The specific type of deterioration was hippocampal atrophy, which happens in a part of the brain associated with long-term memory. That kind of deterioration is commonly seen in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
Why this is important: Previous studies suggesting that moderate drinking is associated with reduced dementia or better cognition may not be correct. This study found that moderate drinking had no protective effect on brain health or memory—and, in fact, appeared to be harmful.
Moderate drinking also has been thought to reduce the risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes—but these new findings suggest that it is a higher-risk activity than previously believed. Previous studies may not have taken into account additional characteristics of moderate drinkers and may therefore have missed the true picture showing harm from moderate alcohol use.
Light drinking appears to be alright—for example, up to three small glasses of wine per week…or about two pints of strong beer—because the light drinkers showed no difference in brain function compared with nondrinkers.
Danger: Current US guidelines recommending up to one drink a day for women and two for men are too high—that level puts your brain at risk.