Moderate drinking may alter brain, study says

These drinkers also showed a faster decline in language fluency - tested by how many words beginning with a specific letter can be generated in one minute.

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

Jennifer Wild, a senior researcher in clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, said the results showed a "robust link" between what most people would consider casual drinking and brain degeneration later in life.

A standard drink includes a 12-ounce beer, for example, or a 5-ounce glass of wine.

While heavier drinkers, consuming 30+ units per week, had the highest risk of hippocampal atrophy, more unexpectedly moderate drinkers, consuming 14-21 units per week, were found to be three times as likely as abstainers to develop the condition.

With the light drinkers, those who had a small glass of wine a night or up to seven units per week, researchers didn't see a significant difference compared with the abstainers, but they didn't see any protective qualities, either.

If you are a moderate drinker, he said, you don't have to give up the booze based exclusively on this report.

"Our findings support the recent reduction in United Kingdom safe limits and call into question the current U.S. guidelines, which suggest that up to 24.5 units a week is safe for men, as we found increased odds of hippocampal atrophy at just 14-21 units a week, and we found no support for a protective effect of light consumption on brain structure", they write.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, researchers from the University of Oxford and University College London, describe how they followed the alcohol intake and cognitive performance of 550 men and women over 30 years from 1985.

"The results are encouraging since they suggest that reducing alcohol consumption today could prevent or delay the onset of diseases linked to hippocampal atrophy, such as Alzheimer's". "Eating whole grains and fruits and vegetables have been linked with slower cognitive decline", Rimm said.

Researchers measured how much alcohol each participant drunk per week, and how frequently they chose to drink. "If actual consumption was under-reported, then the apparent adverse effects of modest amounts of alcohol could have been magnified".

None of those who took part were addicted to alcohol and their average age was 43. "Using all the available evidence provides a much more balanced approach for the public on deciding how much to drink". "The big fibre tracts in the brain are cabled like electrical wire and the insulation, if you like, on those wires was of a poorer quality in people who were drinking more", said Topiwala. Moderate drinkers have a 30% to 40% reduction in the risk of type 2 diabetes compared with those who don't drink, studies show.

Still, at this point, "I wouldn't recommend light to moderate drinking as a strategy to avoid cognitive decline", Topiwala said.

They become "drinking partners", probably because they use alcohol to bond and relax together, the scientists found.

The study was observational so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect. "Hopefully this research will contribute to a greater understanding of true safe limits for alcohol consumption that ensure protection from future dementia".

Topiwala said that was surprising, given the findings on hippocampus size. The hippocampus is an area in the brain that is associated with memory.

"But the study needs to be replicated and, importantly, with women".

The study only looked at a few hundred Londoners, mostly well-educated and middle-class, so it may not be representative of a wider population.

  • Joanne Flowers