A new study reveals a dramatic shift in how alcohol and the brain interact, showing faster brain aging with more alcohol use.
A new study reveals a dramatic shift in how alcohol and the brain interact, showing faster brain aging with more alcohol use. (PC Pixabay.com)

Drinking Too Much Alcohol Ages Your Brain, New Research Says

After a long and tiring day, many of us like to drink a beer or a glass of wine to relax. This is just one way that alcohol has been accepted as part of our society. With the arrival of the coronavirus, the average alcohol intake has risen in the past two years. However, new research shows this can cause some serious side effects, especially for brain function.

In a new study published in Nature Communications, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have found that alcohol use can age the brain more than expected, even at healthy levels.

Background: Alcohol and the Brain

Alcohol affects brain function in many different ways. It can make it harder to control balance, speech, judgment, or memory. In older studies looking at alcohol and the brain, there wasn’t a big enough data set, which caused challenges for fully understanding what happens to your brain when you drink. In the study from the University of Pennsylvania, thanks to data of brain MRI scans of over 36,000 adults, the researchers clearly showed a negative relationship between alcohol and brain function. 

Analysis: Alcohol Causes Brain Aging

Analyzing the data in the best possible way, the researchers controlled for factors like genetic ancestry, country of residence, height, ages sex, smoking status, and socioeconomic status. “Having this data set is like having a microscope or a telescope with a powerful lens,” explained University of Pennsylvania faculty member Gideon Nave. “You get better resolution and start seeing patterns and associations you couldn’t before.”

From their data, the team found that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption was associated with a reduction in the brain’s overall volume, with the association being stronger at a higher consumption level. As Nave stated: “the people who can benefit the most from drinking less are the people who are already drinking the most.” In one instance, 50-year-old participants increasing alcohol consumption from half a glass (one alcohol unit) to a full glass (two units) a day was shown to negatively affect brain function, approximately aging it by two years. 

“These findings contrast with scientific and governmental guidelines on safe drinking limits,” says Henry Kranzler, Director of the Penn Center for Studies on Addiction. “For example, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that women consume an average of no more than one drink per day, recommended limits for men are twice that, an amount that exceeds the consumption level associated in the study with decreased brain volume.”

Outlook: Watch the Number of Drinks

The researchers hope to look further into this relationship between alcohol and the brain from their study. “We may be able to look at these effects over time and, along with genetics, tease apart causal relationships,” Nave explained. The researchers believe that their findings can help many individuals shift how they drink, leading to a healthier lifestyle.

Kenna Castleberry is a staff writer at the Debrief and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). She focuses on deep tech, the metaverse, and quantum technology. You can find more of her work at her website: https://kennacastleberry.com/