Lifelong Drinking May Cause a Decline in Brain Health

While mental health related adverse effects of alcohol consumption are well known, a new research has underlined three key time periods in life when alcohol use can cause the maximum damage.

According to the research published in The BMJ, brain is most sensitive to the harmful effects of alcohol consumption during three particular life stages:

  • First during Gestation (from conception to birth
  • Later during Adolescence (15-19 years), and
  • And then in older adulthood (over 65 years)

These are the periods when, as study authors warn, brain is most vulnerable to the effects of environmental exposures such as alcohol; therefore these are the times when people should consider prevention policies to minimize the sensitivity of brain to such exposures.

Alcohol Consumption During Gestation

This study is significant in the view that nearly 10 percent women consume alcohol during pregnancy. Heavy Consumption of alcohol by pregnant women may lead to complications like fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a problem associated with reductions in brain volume and cognitive impairment. Not just heavy consumption but even low or moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy may lead to deficits related to behavioral and psychological outcomes in offsprings.

Alcohol Consumption During Adolescence

Estimates suggest that more than 20 percent adolescents (15-19 year olds) report at least occasional binge drinking (consuming 60 g of ethanol on a single occasion) in European and other high income countries.

Researchers are concerned that transition to binge drinking in this age may lead to poorer white matter development (critical for efficient brain functioning), reduced brain volume, and small to moderate deficits in a range of cognitive functions.

Alcohol Use in Older Population

Talking about the older people, alcohol use disorders has been found as one of the prominent modifiable risk factors for all forms of dementia (particularly in case of early onset) compared with other known risk factors including smoking and high blood pressure.

Despite relatively low prevalence of alcohol use disorders in older adults, as the authors highlight, even moderate drinking may contribute to a small but significant loss of brain volume in midlife. Moreover, demographic trends have been found to compound the effect of alcohol use on brain health. For example, women are now equally vulnerable to to drink alcohol and experience alcohol related harms as men while global consumption of alcohol is set to witness a further rise in the next decade, the study points out.

Population based interventions such as guidelines on low risk drinking, alcohol pricing policies, and lower drink driving limits need to be accompanied by the development of training and care pathways that consider the human brain at risk throughout life,” they conclude.

Prevalence of Alcohol Consumption among Americans

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health ( NSDUH ), there were 139.7 million current alcohol users aged 12 or older in 2019. Of which 65.8 million people (47.1 percent) were past month binge drinkers. Among past month binge drinkers, 16.0 million people (24.4 percent of current binge drinkers and 11.5 percent of current alcohol users) were past month heavy drinkers. Binge drinking for males was defined as drinking five or more drinks18 on the same occasion on at least 1 day in the past 30 days

In addition, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that excessive alcohol contributes to over 95,000 deaths in the United States each year, which translates to 261 deaths per day. Overall, alcohol is among the leading causes of preventable death in the United States.