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Study Says Even Moderate Drinking Can Alter The Brain

Update Date: Jun 12, 2017 11:10 AM EDT

While everyone knows that heavy drinking can impair the brain and lead to all kinds of problems like dementia, and memory problems. Many thought recently that moderate drinking, having a glass of red wine a day, actually helped protect the brain. Not true, says a new study published in the British Medical Journal

The study involved 550 men and women, none of whom were alcohol dependent, and focused mostly on the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is mostly associated with memory. It found that "higher alcohol consumption over the 30 year follow-up was associated with increased odds of hippocampal atrophy in a dose dependent fashion." Findings also showed that "even those drinking moderately (14-21 units/week) had three times the odds of right-sided hippocampal atrophy." It also asserted that there was no protective effect of "light drinking" (1-7 units/week) over abstinence."   

The result concluded that alcohol consumption, even at moderate levels, is not good for the brain.

Some experts did not agree with that conclusion. Elizabeth Coulthard, consultant senior lecturer in dementia neurology at the University of Bristol, said that the study was observational and does not prove that alcohol was causing the damage to the brain. 

Still, in reading the results of the study, it would be hard to come to the conclusion that drinking is somehow "good" for you. Subjects were given tests of lexical fluency. "[That] is where you ask somebody to name as many words as they can within a minute beginning with a certain letter,"  said Anya Topiwala, a clinical lecturer in old age psychiatry at the University of Oxford and co-author of the research. 

It was found that subjects who drank between 7 and 14 units a week performed 14% worse on the task over 30 years compared to those who drank just 1-7 drinks per week.

Experts were not ready to recommend that people stop drinking entirely. They did, however recommend that people adhere to recommended guidelines. 

In 2016 the Department of Health released new alcoholic guidelines in the UK. The guidelines say that no more than 6 drinks a week is recommended. I'm not sure if you've even been to England or drank with an Englishman, but 6 drinks a week qualifies for being sober in that country.

Dr. Doug Brown, director of research and development at the Alzheimer's Society, said that the new study did not mean that people should stop drinking altogether. Well, that's a relief -- they certainly aren't going to stop drinking in England anytime soon. 

"Although this research gives useful insight into the long-term effects that drinking alcohol may have on the brain, it does not show that moderate alcohol intake causes cognitive decline," said Brown. "However, the findings do contradict a common belief that a glass of red wine or champagne a day can protect against damage to the brain."

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