*Anxiously sips beer*
I almost never drink but when I do, I always feel a little bit stupid the next day. It’s not that I am prone to drunk and disorderly behavior (I’m not … anymore) but hangovers actually make me feel like my intelligence has dimmed. While brains don’t shrink overnight, there’s some unnerving new research out that backs my intuition. A new study suggests that even light to moderate drinking is linked to reduced brain volume in otherwise healthy adults. Yikes. What does that mean even and should I actually be concerned?
The research, which was published today in the journal Nature Communications, analyzed data from 36,678 adults across the U.K.; it’s important to note that the partipants were healthy, but middle aged and older. So while the risk for your shrinking brain might be lower, this is an early reminder to get your rosé habit in check before you hit 50.
Researchers found that even the more alcohol people consumed, the more brain matter they appeared to lose. Going from zero to one unit of alcohol, which is about half a beer or glass of wine, didn’t appear to make a difference (yes, a full beer, depending on the ABV, is two units of alcohol). But scientists saw a connection between people who drank two units of alcohol a day and a reduction in brain volume analogous to aging two years.
In case you’re not aware, it’s normal for your brain to shrink as you age but some experts assert that it may be associated with cognitive decline. Unfortunately, brain shrinkage is an inevitable pitfall of aging that we don’t want to speed up. But, according to this study, the brains of people who consume two units of alcohol every day could age more rapidly than people who don’t.
If that seems dramatic, well, hold on to your pint glass because it’s about to get scarier. Drinking three units of alcohol a day, which could equate to just two beers, was associated with brain shrinkage equivalent to three-and-a-half years of aging.
Still, the experts want to remind us that the findings are correlation, not causation. “It’s not linear,” Remi Daviet, a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin and lead author on the study, told the Guardian. “It gets worse the more you drink.” Ouch. Things are not looking good for most of the residents of my hometown New Orleans — or anyone in America, for that matter because recent studies estimate that the average American has been drinking more than usual during the pannie.
It’s important to note a few caveats about this study, though. First of all, it’s an analysis of data collected from middle-aged people in Britain, as mentioned, so it can’t really tell us that much about how the drinking habits of young Americans impacts brain size. Don’t get overexcited, though, because other recent studies suggest that booze has deleterious effects on the brain no matter how old you are, especially when it comes to parts of the brain that affect communication.
Second, the study isn’t specific about the length of a person’s drinking stint, so it’s hard to say whether all these middle-aged Brits just recently started drinking or have been doing it their whole lives. But based on my admittedly anecdotal knowledge of British drinking habits — and the British government — I assume that most of the participants had been drinking for a minute. It also feels important to say that while this study shows a definite correlation between drinking and brain size, it remains to be seen whether or not drinking is the cause of the brain drain. We also don’t know how much brain size affects daily life.
Regardless, though, I think this research calls for a sense of hope. You may not be able to stop time from shrinking your brain but — speaking as a person who considers themselves an addict — you can totally control your drinking. That’s what the scientists who did this work want us to take away from this, too. “So, one additional drink in a day could have more of an impact than any of the previous drinks that day,” Daviet told the Guardian. “That means that cutting back on that final drink of the night might have a big effect in terms of brain ageing.”