Alcohol – How much is too much?

Drinking any amount of alcohol causes brain damage: Study

According to a new study, there is no such thing as a “safe” level of drinking. Scientists say that increased alcohol consumption is associated with decreased brain health. 

Researchers from the University of Oxford studied the relationship between alcohol intake of some 25,000 people in the UK, and their brain scans.

The researchers noted that drinking had an adverse impact on the brain’s grey matter. Grey matters are the parts of the brain that make up “important bits where information is processed,” according to the lead author of the study, Anya Topiwala, a senior clinical researcher at Oxford.

“The more people drank, the less the volume of their grey matter,” observed Topiwala. 

Type of alcohol doesn’t matter

The team also investigated whether different drinking patterns, beverage types and other health conditions made a difference in the effect of alcohol on brain health.

They found no “safe” level of drinking – that implies that consuming any amount of alcohol was worse than not drinking at all. They also found no evidence that the type of alcohol – wine, spirits or beer – influenced the harm done to the brain.

What too much alcohol can do to your health

Moreover, some pre-existing health conditions put people at a higher risk, the research team added. These include hypertension and obesity. Binge-drinking also is riskier. 

Many people drink ‘moderately’ – this is harmless, says Topiwala. “As we have yet to find a ‘cure’ for neurodegenerative diseases like dementia, knowing about factors that can prevent brain harm is important,” she added.

No safe limit

The risks of alcohol have been known for long: previous studies have indicated that no amount of liquor, wine or beer is safe for your overall health.

According to a study published in The Lancet, alcohol was the leading risk factor for disease and premature death in men and women between the ages of 15 and 49 worldwide in 2016, accounting for nearly one in 10 deaths. Consider these facts (WHO):

  • Worldwide, 3 million deaths are caused by harmful alcohol use, which represents 5.3 % of all deaths.
  • The harmful use of alcohol is a causal factor in more than 200 diseases and injury conditions.
  • Alcohol consumption causes death and disability relatively early in life. In the age group 20–39 years, approximately 13.5 % of the total deaths are alcohol-attributable.
  • There is a causal relationship between harmful use of alcohol and a range of mental and behavioural disorders.
  • Beyond health consequences, the harmful use of alcohol brings significant social and economic losses to individuals and society at large.

Sadie Boniface, head of research at the UK’s Institute of Alcohol Studies, says, “While we can’t yet say for sure whether there is ‘no safe level’ of alcohol regarding brain health at the moment, it has been known for decades that heavy drinking is bad for brain health.” 

“We also shouldn’t forget alcohol affects all parts of the body, and there are multiple health risks,” said Boniface, who was not associated with the University of Oxford study.

Tony Rao, a visiting clinical fellow in Old Age Psychiatry at King’s College London, observed that given the large sample size, it was unlikely the study’s findings could have arisen by chance.

Rao said the study reinforces previous research that has shown that there is no safe limit in the level of alcohol consumption regarding its negative impact on the structure and function of the human brain.

If you or someone you love appears to be heading toward problem drinking, get in touch with a reliable and experienced addiction treatment service.

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