One of the common questions I get in my office is, “what effects does alcohol have on our brain as we age?”
While it’s known that heavy alcohol intake can cause a loss of brain cells, most studies have found that light to moderate drinking is not harmful and some have suggested it may help age related cognitive impairment. For instance, a Finnish study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2011 found that middle aged light or moderate drinkers were less likely to develop cognitive impairment two decades later than teetotalers or heavy drinkers.
Heavy drinking is defined as three or more drinks per day. Besides the amount of alcohol, the pattern of drinking was found to be an independent risk factor for a loss of memory and cognitive impairment even after controlling for total alcohol consumption. This goes against the argument that my patients sometimes try to use, “I only drink on weekends.” Clearly, four or five drinks (even glasses of wine or beer) is a formula to cut both the quality and quantity of years from your life.
Another study in the same journal, which followed people from the San Diego area over a 20-year period, found that those who reported drinking five to seven days a week were more likely to live to age 85 without significant cognitive impairment than non drinkers. However, a British study in the British Medical Journal seemed to undermine the idea that drinking is good for the brain. The study followed 527 healthy people for 30 years and correlated their drinking habits with results of periodic cognitive testing as well as findings on an MEI scan. Not surprisingly, heavy drinking was associated with the highest risk of hippocampus atrophy. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is is involved in memory and spatial navigation and other abnormalities. Even moderate drinking was linked to an increased risk of hippocampal atrophy compared to abstinence.
Based on the data, I don’t want to insist upon everyone becoming a teetotaler, but when it comes to your brain health, less is more.
About the Author:
A highly successful Doctor with a practice in West Bloomfield, Michigan, Jim is also an award-winning broadcast journalist who has served as the “on-air” medical expert for various Detroit radio stations, including: WWJ Radio in Detroit (CBS owned and operated), WJBK-TV (Detroit’s FOX network affiliate) and WKBD in Detroit. He has over 20 years of experience in the medical media industry, including nine years as a national radio medical expert for CNN.
Dr. Jim Bragman has 30 years of experience in private practice, and is also a clinical teacher of medicine at the Wayne State and Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medical Schools.