Alcohol and Brain Health

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“Even at levels of low-risk drinking there is evidence that alcohol consumption plays a role in damage to the brain” ~ Tony Rao, Psychiatrist & International expert on alcohol misuse

Alcohol is one of the most used substances in the United States. Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a clinical diagnosis of an alcohol disorder or alcoholism. Recent statistics have demonstrated that 14.5 million people in America age 12 and over have an AUD.[1] In order to keep health risks associated with alcohol consumption to a low level, it is internationally advised that all people should drink no more than 14 units per week. A unit is roughly equal to a small (125ml) glass of wine, a single shot (25ml) of spirits or half a pint (500ml) of regular strength lager/beer/cider.[2]

The 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported the following statistics:[3] 

  • 69.5% of adults drank alcohol in the past year, with 54.9% having had alcohol in the past month.
  • 25.8% of people aged 18 and older reported binge drinking in the past month.
  • 6.3% of adults reported that they were heavy alcohol users in the past month.

The following unhealthy alcohol use is classified as problematic and can lead to the development of an alcohol disorder or alcoholism:

  • Binge drinking – Consuming five drinks for a man and four drinks for a woman over a two-hour period
  • Heavy Drinking – Engaging in binge drinking on five or more days in the past month
  • High Intensity Drinking – Consuming alcohol in the amount of two or more times the binge drinking thresholds

We are all familiar with the notion of moderate drinking. However, a 2021 study conducted by the University of Oxford has shown that there is no such thing as a “safe” level of drinking, and the consumption of alcohol is associated with brain health detriment and neurodegenerative disease.[4]

The Effects of Alcohol on Brain Health

This ground-breaking Oxford study was conducted by senior clinical researcher, Anya Topiwala, on 25,378 adult participants with a mean age of 54.9 years.   The findings of the study established that there is no such thing as a safe dosage of alcohol with respect to brain health. Brain health was established and defined by structural and functional MRI brain measures. The findings evidenced that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with widespread adverse effects on the brain and that those individuals who binge drink displayed more susceptibility to damage.[5]

The central nervous system is comprised of grey and white matter. The most significant findings in the study were associated with the grey matter regions of the brain, which are the areas that play a crucial role in human functioning by enabling individuals to control memory, movement, and emotions.[6]

Alzheimer’s Disease is associated with a decrease in grey matter and brain volume. Plaque builds up within the brain, which decreases grey matter regions and leads to a decrease in cognitive functioning.  Topiwala’s findings demonstrated that the more people drank, the less volume of the grey matter areas in the central nervous system. The contribution to this decrease was analysed at 0.8%, which may sound small but is actually greater than all other known “modifiable risk factors.”

The study determined that the type of alcohol consumed did not play a part in findings and that individuals who had high blood pressure or a high BMI were more susceptible to neurodegeneration.

Additional Risks of Alcohol Misuse

Alcohol affects all parts of the human body, not just the brain, and there are numerous health risks associated with alcohol consumption.[7]

The short-term risks of alcohol consumption include:

  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Accidents and injuries
  • Lowering of inhibition leading to unprotected sex
  • Violent behavior or becoming a victim of violence

The long-term risks of alcohol consumption include:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Stroke
  • Liver disease
  • Cancer
  • Pancreatitis

Alcohol Consumption, primarily if excessive, also negatively affects socioeconomic and domestic factors, health care costs and facilities.

Reducing Alcohol Intake

Considering the multiple negative effects that alcohol consumption has on our lives and  health, it is no surprise that more people than ever are choosing to reduce their intake. Rates of abstention increased from 18% in 2005 to 29% in 2015, and this has continued to increase in recent years, especially among the younger generations.[8]

However, even moderate alcohol consumption can create dependency within a person’s body and brain. You do not need to be an alcoholic to experience the addictive effects of alcohol, and withdrawal symptoms are common if drinking is suddenly stopped.

Because Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms (AWS) vary from person to person, predicting how an individual will respond to withdrawal and subsequent treatment is difficult to quantify.

AWS can range from mild to severe and can prove fatal in rare situations. The most severe symptoms often occur two to five days after a person stops drinking.  Professional, specialized treatment is recommended for those attempting to quit alcohol as AWS can trigger life threatening health complications.[9]

Due to the far-reaching negative effects that alcohol has on the body, it is essential to seek treatment if you or your loved ones are finding abstaining difficult or if the withdrawal symptoms are too severe.

If you are concerned about any issues discussed in this blog, please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates.  Call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


[1] “Alcohol Facts and Statistics | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)”. Niaaa.Nih.Gov, 2019, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics.

[2] “Alcohol Misuse”. Nhs.Uk, 2021, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-misuse/.

[3] “Alcohol Facts and Statistics | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)”. Niaaa.Nih.Gov, 2019, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics.

[4] Topiwala, Anya. “No Safe Level of Alcohol Consumption for Brain Health: Observational Cohort Study of 25,378 UK Biobank Participants”. Medrxiv.Org, 2021, https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.05.10.21256931v1.full.pdf.

[5] Topiwala, Anya. “No Safe Level of Alcohol Consumption for Brain Health: Observational Cohort Study of 25,378 UK Biobank Participants”. Medrxiv.Org, 2021, https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.05.10.21256931v1.full.pdf.

[6] Mercadante AA, Tadi P. Neuroanatomy, Gray Matter. [Updated 2020 Jul 31]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK553239/

[7] Rehm, Jürgen. “The Risks Associated with Alcohol Use and Alcoholism”. Pubmed Central (PMC), 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3307043/.

[8] Ng Fat, Linda et al. “Investigating the Growing Trend of Non-Drinking Among Young People; Analysis of Repeated Cross-Sectional Surveys in England 2005–2015”. BMC Public Health, vol 18, no. 1, 2018. Springer Science and Business Media LLC, doi:10.1186/s12889-018-5995-3. Accessed 25 May 2021.

[9] Long, Drew et al. “The Emergency Medicine Management of Severe Alcohol Withdrawal”. The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, vol 35, no. 7, 2017, pp. 1005-1011. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.ajem.2017.02.002. Accessed 25 May 2021.

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