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Moderate drinking can harm brain, study says

Moderate drinking can harm brain, study says

The research team - from the University of Oxford and University College London - said their results supported a recent lowering of drinking limit guidelines in Britain, but posed questions about limits recommended in the United States.

The researchers also found that drinking more was associated with poorer white matter integrity, a factor considered critical for cognitive functioning.

Heavy drinking can lead to a number of serious health problems, including increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and dementia, but consuming even moderate levels of alcohol could be unsafe, as well, new research suggests. They also had a higher risk of hippocampal atrophy than those who didn't report any drinking at all.

Despite the study's findings, experts such as Dr. Doug Brown, director of research and development at Alzheimer's Society, told the Guardian that people should not think they need to stop drinking completely. Their alcohol intake and cognitive performance were measured repeatedly over thirty years and MRI scans were performed at the end, between 2012 and 2015.

Even the heaviest of the drinkers aren't big nightly bingers. Those consuming more than 30 units of alcohol saw an nearly six-fold rise in their risk.

Fourteen units is the equivalent of six pints a week, or six medium glasses of wine.

They also question the current limits recommended in the USA which suggest that up to 24.5 units a week is safe for men, as the research suggests increased odds of hippocampal atrophy at just 14-21 units a week.

Compared with people who did not drink, people who drank moderately showed a three times higher risk of hippocampal atrophy.

Who doesn't enjoy a nice glass of red with dinner?

The researchers looked at data on 550 healthy men and women who were not dependent on alcohol.




An important caveat: The study is observational, so it can not prove cause and effect. A bottle of wine contains about seven standard drinks, or units. "Eating whole grains and fruits and vegetables have been linked with slower cognitive decline". Attributing mental decline to alcohol is too limited, he said.

And while the latest study can not pin the blame on alcohol, it avoided some of the pitfalls of other research, Stockwell said.

"People tend to underestimate their actual consumption, partly to appear more respectable", Dening said.

"And we found no support for a protective effect of light consumption on brain structure", they added.

Last month, a review of previous research found that much of it doesn't control for confounding factors, casting doubt on the premise that moderate drinking comes with protective health effects. Some also state that as this was exclusively an observational study, it should not conclude "causation". "Using all the available evidence provides a much more balanced approach for the public on deciding how much to drink".

Stockwell, who was not involved in this latest study, has done work examining a popular notion - that drinking, in moderation, is good for the heart.

Rimm wondered whether there were so few abstainers in the study because, after 30 years, they hadn't lived as long as the others.

The effect of heavy drinking on brain function has always been known.

They found that alcohol use was associated with reduced right hippocampal volume. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "5.1 percent of the global burden of disease and injury is attributable to alcohol". The brains scans also showed differences, with the heaviest drinkers showing a clear shrinkage in the hippocampus.

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