Hardly a week goes by in the scientific world without a new study or some new information on the effect of alcohol consumption on health. Whether it’s cancer, cognition or some other factor, how drinking impacts the body is a frequent topic in medical research. The most recent study, published in the British Medical Journal, looked at moderate drinking. A collaborative study conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford and University College London, followed study participants for a period of 30 years, tracking alcohol use and mental sharpness. Their results were a bit of validation for the recent change in the British government’s Department of Health guidelines on the amount of alcohol that was safe to consume for both men and women. The recommended amount was adjusted downward from about 21 units of booze a week, to 14. These new guidelines were aimed at reducing the risk of cancer and other health concerns and it seems they are supported by the new research.
It’s been shown in several studies that heavy drinking has a multitude of poor outcomes on health, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer, as well as poor brain health. The new research, looked closely at moderate amounts of drinking and showed that there is a relationship between amounts previously believed to be low risk and the incidence of mental decline. The study included 550 healthy men and women. Their alcohol intake and mental performance were measured regularly from 1985-2015. Participants were drawn from the ranks of over 10,000 volunteers taking park in the WhiteHall II study, which looked at cardiovascular disease and mortality among British civil servants.
The average age of those beginning the study was 43 and none of the volunteers were alcohol dependent. Measures of cognitive ability were conducted regularly along with data about how much alcohol was consumed on a weekly basis. During the last few years of the study, MRI scans were also added to the research. After adjusting for confounding facts like age, sex and socioeconomic status, the results revealed that those who had higher levels of alcohol consumption were at an increased risk for a form of brain damage known as hippocampal atrophy. When this part of the brain is damaged, a person can experience memory loss and difficulty with spatial navigation. Naturally, the more a person drank, the higher the risks were, but the study revealed that even those in what is considered a moderate range of drinking (14 to 21 units a week) were three times more likely to have hippocampal atrophy when compared to those who did not drink.
While some studies on alcohol have shown a protective effect of light drinking, those results were not shown in the most recent research in the UK. Higher amounts of drinking also impacted “white matter integrity” which is related to executive functioning in the brain as well as a decline in language fluency.
One drawback that the authors pointed out about the study was that it’s observational in amounts of alcohol consumed, so that has to be considered alongside the results when drawing conclusions. It is however one of the longest lasting studies of its kind and the controls for confounding factors were strong, making the data more reliable than other studies.
In an editorial in the BMJ that was published along with the findings, Killian Welch, consultant neuropsychiatrist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, says these findings “strengthen the argument that drinking habits many regard as normal have adverse consequences for health. This is important. We all use rationalizations to justify persistence with behaviors not in our long term interest. With publication of this paper, justification of “moderate” drinking on the grounds of brain health becomes a little harder.” Check out the video included here to learn more about what this could mean for the recommendations on alcohol consumption in the United States.