A new study done by researchers from the University of Oxford and the University College London might call for a rethinking of how we view alcohol consumption — not the kind that has long been proven to increase the risk of developing liver disease, diabetes and cognitive issues, but the kind that has been considered acceptable and even beneficial: moderate drinking.
Moderate drinking is defined as having between 7 – 14 drinks a week for women, and between 7 – 21 drinks for men. As it turns out, ‘moderate drinkers’ may have a higher risk of experiencing cognitive decline and brain damage over time — not as high as that of heavy drinkers (men who had more than 21 drinks a week and women who had more than 14), but significantly higher than those who rarely consume alcohol.
The results were derived from a 30-year observational period involving 550 participants — men and women who consumed different levels of alcohol. During the study, the participants were asked to perform different cognitive tasks. Once the study was complete, MRI scans of their brains were taken.
The team found out that for those who drank more often, a shrunken hippocampus was more common, and the shrinking was more evident on the right side. More specifically, hippocampus shrinkage was present in 35% of those who didn’t drink; 65% in those who drank moderately; and 77% in heavy drinkers. The hippocampus is that part of the brain associated with memory, learning and emotional response.
Relating the hippocampus shrinkage with the results of the cognitive tasks, the team found that only verbal fluency seems to have been affected by the amount of alcohol intake. Verbal fluency refers to one’s ability to retrieve words.
While experts may be divided on the exact implications of the study, especially considering limitations such as the accuracy of information given, like how many drinks a participant actually had; the fact that the team did not do MRI scans at the beginning of the study, they just based the shrinkage on the expected brain size according to standard scales; the small sample size involved, the similar backgrounds they had, as well as their having relatively high IQs compared with the general population; and not including lifestyle factors, most notably, nutrition — they can at least agree that contrary to popular belief, drinking a glass of wine a day may not be beneficial at all. Basically, the idea here is to simply refrain, as much as one possibly can, from drinking alcohol as its consumption, even at moderate levels, ‘is associated with multiple markers of abnormal brain structure’.
The research was recently published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).