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Just a few drinks a week can lead to a decrease in brain size

At this point we can safely confirm that alcohol is bad for the brain. The question that worries everyone, however, is how bad is it really? The vast majority of us will emerge from binge drinking in college and into our 20s. Downing a few drinks every week can’t be that bad, can it?

Well…a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that even light to moderate alcohol consumption, like one drink a day, was associated with an overall reduction in brain volume. This connection only grew stronger as alcohol consumption increased.

And the results of the study, Published in nature communicationare only more alarming, as they include data from more than 36,000 adults — a sample size far larger than previous research examining the relationship between alcohol and the brain.

“The fact that we have such a large sample size allows us to find subtle patterns, even between drinking half a beer and one beer a day,” said study co-author and UPenn professor Gideon Nave in a press release.

A reduced brain volume leads to cognitive impairment. Brains naturally shrink with age, so brain size can serve as a proxy measure of brain age. Repeated brain injuries and some types of behavior, including drinking, can further reduce brain size and accelerate brain aging.

The new study analyzes information from the UK Biobank, a collection of medical records from half a million British adults of diverse ages, gender, socioeconomic status, genetic ancestry, place of residence and many other health factors. Of the 36,000 participants in this study, Nave and his team specifically looked at how brain MRIs — which are very useful for visualizing total brain volume — changed in relation to drinking habits.

“Having that dataset is like having a microscope or a telescope with a more powerful lens,” Nave said. “You get better resolution and see patterns and associations that you couldn’t see before.”

After examining factors that can affect brain size, Nave and his team found that increased alcohol consumption actually resulted in lower amounts of brain mass than the researchers had otherwise predicted. The consumption of an average of one unit of alcohol per day (about half a beer) corresponded to an acceleration of the aging of the brain by about half a year. The effect is exponential when you jump to higher drinking levels: Four units of alcohol per day accelerated brain aging by more than 10 years.

And of course, actual biological age only reinforces this relationship. For a typical 50-year-old, one unit of alcohol per day increased brain aging by two years. Going from two to three drinks a day added another three and a half years.

These findings could mean that state guidelines on safe drinking limits need some major overhauls. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, for example, recommends women not have more than one drink per day and a limit of two per day for men.

Revising these guidelines may require a little more research at first. Nave and his colleagues admit they need to do more studies to confirm what they found, which is a causal relationship between alcohol consumption and brain size, rather than just a correlation. And they also want to get a better sense of what kind of specific cognitive effects moderate drinkers might experience compared to abstainers.

But at least the new findings are another reminder to think twice before you decide to splurge for the next drink —Or maybe do without it altogether.

https://www.thedailybeast.com/just-a-few-drinks-a-week-can-lead-to-reduction-in-brain-size?source=articles&via=rss Just a few drinks a week can lead to a decrease in brain size

Russell Falcon

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