Alcohol shrinks the brain’s memory center

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“All things in moderation” might not be the best approach to alcohol. A new study shows that even moderate alcohol consumption could increase the risk of brain damage.

Your brain on alcohol

British researchers studied a group of men and women—mostly men—over the course of 30 years. Participants shared information about their drinking habits, took cognitive tests and got an MRI scan of the brain at the end of the study. None of the participants had a known alcohol use disorder.

The study showed that even moderate levels of alcohol use caused negative changes in the brain.

The heaviest drinkers, who had more than 17 U.S. standard “drinks” a week, were at the highest risk for these changes. But even those who drank a more moderate 8 to 12 drinks a week were impacted. By current U.S. guidelines, that’s considered a relatively safe level for men (not for women). But compared with people who didn’t drink at all, moderate drinkers had three times the odds of degeneration in the hippocampus part of the brain. That’s an area involved in making and storing new memories.

What about light drinkers?

Other studies have linked light-to-moderate drinking with a reduced risk of dementia. But this study showed no brain benefits for light drinkers compared to nondrinkers. Light drinking was defined as less than four drinks a week.

Those who drank four to seven drinks a week—a level that is considered relatively safe for women—were also at some risk of brain damage.

This could call current U.S. guidelines into question. But more research is needed.

Want to learn more? See the study in the BMJ.

How much is a standard drink?

The amount of alcohol in a drink can vary widely, depending on the type of drink and the serving size. So it’s possible for a single beverage to contain more than one standard “drink.” U.S. federal health agencies define a drink as 0.6 ounces, or 14 grams, of pure alcohol. You might find that much, for example, in:

  • 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol content).
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor (7 percent alcohol content).
  • 5 ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol content).
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor or distilled spirits (40 percent alcohol content).

If you’re trying to cut back on your drinking, these tips may help.




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