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Moderate alcohol consumption has adverse effect on brain function

Moderate alcohol consumption has adverse effect on brain function

According to the study's authors from Oxford University, previous studies suggest that moderate amounts of alcohol are potentially harmless.

The research now published in the BMJ investigates the relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and brain structure and function using MRI scans to study the hippocampus' degeneration (or hippocampal atrophy), grey matter density and white matter microstructure.

Language fluency also declined faster with higher alcohol consumption.

A variety of studies have linked heavy drinking to brain damage and dementia, but a new one suggests moderate drinking might also hurt the brain and perhaps lead to memory loss.

Overall, the study found, moderate drinkers were more than three times as likely as abstainers to show abnormal levels of atrophy in the right hippocampus.

There is a lot of confusion about the measurement of alcohol intake, in part because units are defined differently in Ireland from the United Kingdom - our measures tend to be bigger!

The changes to account for the links between alcohol and cancer.

There was no protective effect of light drinking (up to 7 units per week) over abstinence.

Moderate to heavy drinkers did worse on a language fluency test that requires the volunteers to name as many words as they can beginning with a particular letter in a minute.

In addition, the majority of the study's participants were men, while reports of alcohol consumption are often inaccurate with people underestimating how much they drink - an effect that could have exaggerated the apparent impact of moderate amounts of alcohol.




As the authors point out, "alcohol might represent a modifiable risk factor for cognitive impairment, and primary prevention interventions targeted to later life could be too late".

In an accompanying editorial, Killian Welch, consultant neuropsychiatrist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, says the findings "strengthen the argument that drinking habits many regard as normal have adverse consequences for health".

'This is important. We all use rationalisations to justify persistence with behaviours not in our long term interest. But now the study has taken a foot back saying moderate drinking can cause harm to brain cells.

But, he said, more research on cognitive effects is needed.

Although this was an observational study, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, it has the advantage of having MRI scan images of the brain and being able to look at alcohol consumption over decades.

An important caveat: The study is observational, so it can not prove cause and effect.

Tom Dening, a professor of dementia research and Director of the Centre for Old Age and Dementia at the University of Nottingham, called the study "most impressive" and suggests it may be a good reminder that "perhaps we should all drink a bit less", but he also questioned its results.

Dr Doug Brown, from the Alzheimer's Society, added: "There's no need to fret about whether to abstain from alcohol altogether as long as you stay within the new recommended guidelines".

Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines say to reduce long-term health risks, no more than two drinks a day, five times a week or 10 drinks total a week for women are recommended and no more than three drinks a day, five times a week or 15 drinks total a week are recommended for men.

"If you are anxious about you or someone else, speak to your GP".

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