A new study has found even low-dose alcohol use can lead to brain damage in the form of loss of brain volume. These new findings have implications specifically for middle aged and older people.
It is a proven and well-established fact that alcohol use is a risk factor for dementia. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) included “avoiding alcohol” in their guidelines to prevent dementia launched last year.
Research has found that zero alcohol is the only level with zero risk. However, considering that people continue to use alcohol, reducing the harm from alcohol in people, numerous countries have introduced low-risk alcohol use guidelines. In the United Kingdom, for example, the low-risk alcohol consumption recommendation is 14 units of alcohol per week for both men and women.
The new study published in Scientific Reports found that consuming alcohol even at the low risk limits led to brain damage in the form of loss of brain volume among middle aged people.
The study analyzed 300 people between the ages of 39 and 45 to understand the effects of alcohol use on the brain. Most people in the study reported that they consumed alcohol at what was considered low-risk levels (an average of less than 14 units of alcohol a week) the so called “moderate” limit, or low-dose alcohol intake.
The study found that there was a reduction in brain volume even at this low-dose alcohol consumption for both men and women and even when controlled for other risk factors, such as smoking.
The findings challenge the alcohol industry’s promotion of “moderate” alcohol use and the myth that low-doses of alcohol are not harmful.
The study did not look at the physiological effects caused by this loss of brain volume. However, evidence shows that any significant loss of brain tissue will reduce the brain’s ability to function at an optimal level.
This adds to the fact that adult brains shrink slowly with age naturally. When the shrinking starts early it is likely to be accelerated with other risk factors emerging with middle age and older age, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
The new findings are important as previous research has found that living free from alcohol use completely can partially reverse brain damage due to alcohol, as early as six weeks in the frontal lobes. This part of the brain is important in regulating behavior and thinking.
Frontal lobe damage due to alcohol starts early on. The signs of this type of damage are often missed because dementia is what is focused on in terms of alcohol harm to the brain. Testing for dementia does not show the frontal lobe damage.
The risk is specifically high for the baby boomer generation who were brought up with a harmful alcohol norm. This generation has been found most likely to consume alcohol heavily and is least likely to live free from alcohol. The case is true across the world as in the United Kingdom.
Early detection of alcohol damage to the brain as well as increased awareness that the only safe level of alcohol is zero alcohol is much needed to avert the oncoming wave of alcohol related brain damage.
Research that abstinence partially reverses the harm suggests that if action is taken now the burden can be reduced.