Is there a link between alcohol consumption and brain volume?

The science on heavy drinking and the brain is clear. The two don’t have a healthy relationship. People who drink heavily have alterations in brain structure and size that are associated with cognitive impairments.

According to a new study, alcohol consumption even at modest levels— a few beers or glasses of wine a week — may carry risks to the brain. An analysis of data from more than 36,000 adults, led by a team from the University of Pennsylvania, found that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption was associated with reductions in overall brain volume.

The link grew stronger the greater the level of alcohol consumption, the researchers showed. As an example, in 50-year-olds, as average drinking among individuals increases from one alcohol unit (about half a beer) a day to two units (a pint of beer or a glass of wine) there are associated changes in the brain equivalent to ageing two years. Going from two to three alcohol units at the same age was like aging three and a half years. The team reported their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

Going from zero to one alcohol units didn’t make much of a difference in brain volume, but going from one to two or two to three units a day was associated with reductions in both grey and white matter, according to University of Pennsylvania release.

While strong evidence exists that heavy drinking causes changes in brain structure, including strong reductions in grey and white matter across the brain, other studies have suggested that moderate levels of alcohol consumption may not have an impact, or even that light drinking could benefit the brain in older adults.

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