Health & Fitness

Drinking, even at modest levels harms your health

Woman drinking a beer out at a beach bar

Summary

  • With mild impairment, people may begin to notice changes in brain functions, but still be able to do their everyday activities.
  • Severe levels of impairment can lead to losing the ability to understand the meaning or importance of something as well as the ability to talk or write.

Just like many Kenyans, 35-year-old Martin has embraced drinking for pleasure and socialisation purposes.

He usually meets his friends at his neighbourhood pub most evenings after work, for a few drinks before heading home to eat and sleep.

This routine seems normal and harmless to Martin since he usually partakes in just a few drinks and avoids getting drunk, save for the weekends when he is not required to go to work the following day.

“Most of us deal with a lot of pressure at work as well as at home. So, it has become our thing to just meet and unwind over a drink before going on with our daily routines,” he says.

Social drinking or consumption of alcohol is a habit that is ingrained in many Kenyans and people have no reservations about it. They believe that they are safe so long as they drink responsibly and modestly.

This is because most studies on alcohol consumption have focused on the adverse effects of heavy drinking among people.

For instance, numerous research papers have shown that people who drink heavily have alterations in brain structure and size that are associated with cognitive impairments.

This refers to people having trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions that affect their everyday life. The condition ranges from mild to severe.

With mild impairment, people may begin to notice changes in brain functions, but still be able to do their everyday activities. Severe levels of impairment can lead to losing the ability to understand the meaning or importance of something as well as the ability to talk or write, resulting in the inability to live independently

Findings of a new study published in the Nature Communications Journal shows that alcohol consumption even at levels most people would consider modest — a few beers or glasses of wine a week — may also carry risks to the brain and cause cognitive impairments.

The findings of this study, which was led by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, emanated from data of more than 36,000 adults that were meticulously analysed.

The results specifically showed that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption was associated with reductions in overall brain volume.

The link grew stronger, as the levels of alcohol consumption went up, within the modest drinking threshold.

In 50-year-olds, for instance, as average drinking among individuals increased from one alcohol unit (about half a beer) a day to two units — a pint of beer or a glass of wine, there were noticeable changes in the brain — equivalent to ageing two years.

Similarly, going from two to three alcohol units at the same age, was like ageing three-and-a-half years.

“The fact that we had such a large sample size allowed us to find subtle patterns, even between drinking the equivalent of half a beer and one beer a day,” said Gideon Nave, a corresponding author of the study and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.

“These findings contrast with scientific and governmental guidelines on safe drinking limits. For example, although the US 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 two drinks, which exceed the consumption level associated in the study with decreased brain volume,” noted Henry Kranzler, another researcher from the University of Pennsylvania who participated in the study.

According to the researchers, past studies on the impact of alcohol and brain health have yielded conflicting results due to insufficient data.

“While strong evidence exists that heavy drinking causes changes in brain structure, other studies have suggested that moderate levels of alcohol consumption may not have an impact, or even that light drinking could benefit the brain in older adults,” they note.

The researchers remedied this challenge by relying on massive data sets, specifically looking at brain health scans from more than 36,000 adults.

“Having this dataset is like having a microscope or a telescope with a more powerful lens. You get a better resolution and start seeing patterns and associations you couldn’t before,” noted Dr Nave.

“Going from zero to one alcohol drink didn’t make much of a difference in brain volume. But going from one to two or two to three drinks a day was associated with reductions in both Gray and white matter of the brain. The link is not linear. It gets worse the more you drink,” said Dr Daviet.

In future work, the authors hope to tap the UK Biobank and other large datasets to help answer additional questions related to alcohol use.

“This study looked at average consumption, but we’re curious whether drinking one beer a day is better than drinking none during the week and then seven on the weekend,” Nave says.

“There’s some evidence that binge drinking is worse for the brain, but we haven’t looked closely at that yet.”

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