NMU – 185 Alcohol’s Detrimental Effects on the Brain is Heightened at 3 Critical Stages in Our Lifespan
Lifestyle Medicine Update No 185 (Dec 9, 2020)
with Dr. James Meschino
Topic: Alcohol’s Detrimental Effects on the Brain is Heightened at 3 Critical Stages in Our Lifespan
Source: British Medical Journal December 2020
A ground-breaking study published in the British Medical Journal in December 2020 showed that consumption of alcohol is exceedingly damaging to human brain cells during three critical stages of our lifespan. These include the periods of dynamic brain changes that occur during gestation (from conception to birth), during later adolescence (15-19 years), and in older adulthood (over 65 years). Alcohol has long been categorized as a neurotoxin, which means that it is a substance that has destructive effects on nerve cells, including brain cells. But the researchers warn that during these 3 key periods in our lifespan the detrimental effects of alcohol on the brain are amplified quite significantly. They cite the following data of importance: Globally, around 10% of pregnant women consume alcohol, with the rates considerably higher in European countries than the global average. Heavy alcohol use during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, associated with widespread reductions in brain volume and cognitive impairment. But data suggest that even low or moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy is significantly associated with poorer psychological and behavioral outcomes in their children. In terms of adolescence, more than 20% of 15-19-year olds in European and other high-income countries report at least occasional binge drinking (defined as 60 g of ethanol on a single occasion, where one standard drink provides 10 gm of alcohol). Studies indicate that the transition to binge drinking in adolescence is associated with reduced brain volume, poorer white matter development (critical for efficient brain functioning), and small to moderate deficits in a range of cognitive functions. And in older people, alcohol use disorders were recently shown to be one of the strongest modifiable risk factors for all types of dementia (particularly early-onset) compared with other established risk factors such as high blood pressure and smoking. Although alcohol use disorders are relatively rare in older adults, the authors point out that even moderate drinking has been shown to be linked to a small but significant loss of brain volume in older subjects.
As well, demographic trends may compound the effect of alcohol use on brain health. For example, women are now just as likely as men to drink alcohol and experience alcohol-related harm, and global consumption is forecast to rise further in the next decade. The effects of the covid-19 pandemic on alcohol use and related harms are unclear, but alcohol use increased in the long term after other major public health crises. As such, the researchers call for an integrated approach to harm reduction at all ages. They state “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.” Remember that alcohol consumption is also the second most common environmental cause of cancer in our society after cigarette smoking, accounting for an estimated 3.5% of all cancer deaths each year in the U.S.
I have included the reference for this research paper in the text below.
1. Louise Mewton, Briana Lees, Rahul Tony Rao. Lifetime perspective on alcohol and brain health. BMJ, 2020; m4691 https://www.bmj.com/content/371/bmj.m4691
2. National Cancer Institute: Alcohol and Cancer Risk: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/alcohol/alcohol-fact-sheet
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