Gone are the days of doctors saying a glass of wine is good for your health – a new study suggests even moderate drinking can be bad for the brain.
It has long been known that heavy drinking has a deleterious effect on the brain and is linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s, but moderate drinking was thought to actually be protective of the brain, particularly for people with diabetes, stroke or chronic pain. But, no more. Last month, a study linked a glass of wine a day to an increased risk for breast cancer, and a study published Wednesday in the BMJ has found that even moderate drinking – 14 to 21 units per week – can lead to hippocampal atrophy, a form of brain damage that can impact spatial awareness and language skills and is associated with various forms of dementia.
“Alcohol consumption, even at moderate levels, is associated with adverse brain outcomes including hippocampal atrophy,” the study concluded. “These results support the recent reduction in alcohol guidance in the U.K. and question the current limits recommended in the U.S.”
A “unit” of alcohol is considered to be 10 mililiters or 8 grams of pure alcohol. The typical beer or glass of wine contains about two units of pure alcohol. For those of you who already have too much hippocampal atrophy to do the math, in this case “moderate” drinking means seven to 11 drinks per week – that’s less than two drinks per night.
While the effects were much more severe in the brains of heavier drinkers – people who consumed more than 15 drinks per week – the study is the first to suggest that moderate drinking might not only not have protective effects, but might actually be harmful to the brain.
"We were surprised that the light-to-moderate drinkers didn't seem to have that protective effect," study co-author Dr. Anya Topiwala, a clinical lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford, told CNN. "These are people who are drinking at levels that many consider social drinkers, so they are not consuming a lot."
Good news for the light drinkers though – researchers found people who had a small glass of wine a night (up to seven units a week) didn’t have any significant differences in brain health from the abstainers.
To understand the effects of long-term alcohol use on brain health, researchers relied on the Whitehall II study, which tracked disease and social behaviors in a group of British civil servants for 30 years.
Though researchers agreed the findings certainly merit further study, they don’t intend to scare off drinkers – a lot of other factors, including nutrition, can also contribute to mental decline.