Rigorous, modern, and high-quality independent scientific research clearly shows that already low-dose alcohol use causes multifold health issues.
According to the definitions of the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), low-dose of ‘light’ alcohol use is defined as the consumption of three alcoholic drinks or less per week. ‘Moderate’ alcohol use is defined by the CDC as is four to seven alcoholic drinks per week for women and four to 14 alcoholic drinks per week for men.
More rigorousm modern, and high-quality independent research disapproves findings from previous studies claiming positive brain effects from alcohol use as incomplete and factually wrong in their conclusions.
A study published in 2022 establishes alcohol as a causal determinant of telomere length. A telomere is a region of repetitive DNA sequences at the end of a chromosome. Its length is considered to be a potential biological marker of aging.
Epidemiologically, shorter leucocyte telomere length (LTL) has been linked to several aging-related diseases. These include Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and coronary artery disease. Telomere length is partly heritable and linked to sex, ethnicity and paternal age. It is also linked to environmental and lifestyle factors, including exercise, smoking, and alcohol consumption.
Low-dose alcohol use bad for the brain
Recent findings by the UK Biobank showed that ‘moderate’ alcohol use is bad for brain health. The Biobank is a large-scale database of individuals’ genetic and medical information.
At least two different studies involving UK Biobank participants found a link between ‘moderate’ alcohol use and brain damage.
The study established direct links between shrinkage of the brain’s gray matter and low-dose alcohol use. It also directly linked alcohol use with structural damage in white matter. The impact only increases with the amount of alcohol consumed.
One of the two studies lasted nine years and studied the MRIs of 23,378 participants. It showed that damage to white and gray matter could occur when people consume as few as four alcoholic drinks per week.
Gray matter, critical for processing information, makes up most of the brain’s outer layer. White matter, in the brain’s interior, allows regions of gray matter to communicate with one another. As per Brain and Life reporting, MRI study co-author Anya Topiwala describes the link between alcohol use and brain damage as a direct one.
The more alcohol consumed, the smaller the volume of brain regions.”Anya Topiwala, MRI study co-author, and Senior Clinical Researcher and Consultant Psychiatrist, University of Oxford
Alcohol use linked to hundreds of health problems
Other public health implications of alcohol use include higher incidence of suicide, vehicular accidents, and violence.
The NIAAA reports that An analysis of death certificates from 2019 and 2020 showed that deaths involving alcohol rose from approximately 79,000 to more than 99,000, a 25.5% increase in the U.S.
Alcohol use disorder triples the risk for dementia at any age.
Already Low-Dose Alcohol Use Shrinks Brain Volume, New Study Shows
A landmark study published in 2022 examined a large sample of 36,678 British middle-aged participants from the Biobank study to see how low dose alcohol use affects the brain.
The researchers found that already small amounts of alcohol use, such as one or two units, can shrink brain volume. The more alcohol is used the worse the effects get, with two units a day ageing the brain by two years compared to those who had one unit a day and four units a day ageing the brain by a decade.
Already low dose alcohol use negatively affects global brain volume measures, regional gray matter volumes, and white matter microstructure.
This study is the largest scientific investigation conducted on the matter so far.
Any alcohol amount is harmful for the brain
In 2021, a landmark study showed that no amount of alcohol is safe for the brain. Even low doses of alcohol were found to reduce grey matter and threaten integrity of white matter. According to these findings no alcohol is the best for better brain health.
The study found the following key results:
- Alcohol harms the entire brain.
- Higher volume of alcohol consumption per week led to lower grey matter density.
- Alcohol explained 0.8% change in grey matter volume after controlling for other variables. This is the largest modifiable risk factor contributing to brain ill-health. For example alcohol contributes four times more than smoking to brain ill-health.
- Alcohol also threatened the integrity of white matter.
- Underlying conditions such as high blood pressure and high BMI made the negative connections of alcohol with the brain even more worse.
- There was no difference in results in various types of alcohol such as beer, wine or spirits.
There’s no threshold [alcohol use] for harm – any alcohol is worse. Pretty much the whole brain seems to be affected – not just specific areas, as previously thought,” said Anya Topiwala, the lead author and a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Oxford, as per The Guardian.Anya Topiwala, study lead author, senior clinical lecturer, University of Oxford
This research adds to the growing body of science showing that no level of alcohol is safe for health and well-being of people. A previous landmark study showed that no level of alcohol consumption improves health or is good for health.
In 2020, research provided groundbreaking insights into the three periods of dynamic brain changes that may be particularly sensitive to the neurotoxic effects of alcohol:
- gestation (from conception to birth),
- later adolescence (15-19 years), and
- older adulthood (over 65 years).
This study found that alcohol consumption over 7 units (56g) weekly which falls within the threshold of “moderate” consumption was associated with higher iron levels in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. This is in turn associated with cognitive decline. The findings mean that even having low-dose or “moderate” levels of alcohol can lead to harm to the brain and cognitive decline.
The effects of alcohol consumption on brain health, continued
As per Brain and Life reporting, the effects of alcohol consumption on the brain are visible on MRI scans, says Marlene Oscar-Berman, professor emerita at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine.
In my research, we see atrophy [shrinkage] plus structure damage in certain brain regions in people with alcohol use disorder compared with healthy abstainers or light [alcohol users].”Marlene Oscar-Berman, PhD, Professor Emerita, Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine
Dr. Oscar-Berman also found that alcohol use disorders damage the ability of different regions of the brain to communicate with each other. Such damage is linked to problems with learning and memory, vision, language, and reasoning, and with the ability to plan and organize, regulate emotions, and respond appropriately to situations.
A German study compared MRI scans of 119 people with alcohol use disorder with those of healthy, age-matched low-dose alcohol consumers. While brain changes in the youngest alcohol users (ages 20 to 30) were not detected, the damage became apparent as people got older.
Alcohol is also the leading cause of early-onset dementia. A five-year study of about 31.6 million people published in The Lancet in 2018 established these findings.
The study highlights many adverse effects of alcohol use. Among them is the toxicity of acetaldehyde to healthy brain cells. Acetaldehyde is produced when the body’s enzymes break down alcohol. It can lead to cell damage or loss and can also cause brain inflammation.
Quitting Alcohol Can Improve Cognitive Function for People Experiencing Severe Alcohol Use Disorder in Just 18 Days
This study published in 2022 in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism showed that the majority of people who successfully quit alcohol use experience significant cognitive improvements after just a few weeks.
Cognitive deficits were improved in 63% of study participants after just 18 days of sobriety, showing that significant improvement is possible in a short time.
Neuropsychological assessments tested verbal episodic memory, verbal working memory, executive functioning, and visuospatial abilities. Participants who had alcohol use disorder were tested at eight days and 18 days after quitting alcohol use.
Results showed that nearly 60% of patients with alcohol use disorder showed cognitive impairments 8 days after cessation of alcohol. Among those who showed impairments, 63% showed improvement in their deficits such that they reached normal levels of functioning after 18 days of discontinuing alcohol usage.
- Promising recovery rates were shown for working memory and episodic memory at 60% and 63% respectively.
- 67% of participants who showed visuospatial impairments at the first data collection point displayed normal levels at the second data collection point.
- Additionally, the recovery of flexibility performance was 100%.
The study shows that in just 18 days, improvement in cognitive functions after having stopped consuming alcohol are possible.