By John Salak –
Alcohol always has the potential to devastate brain health, but there are apparently three periods in a person’s development when they are at greatest risk to sustain significant harm, which medical professional stress underscores the need for a long-term view on dealing with the impact of excessive alcohol consumption.
Researchers in Australia and the UK report their recent work shows the most sensitive periods for the harmful effects of alcohol are gestation (from conception to birth), later adolescence (15-19 years), and older adulthood (over 65 years).
It is well known that excessive alcohol consumption during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, associated with widespread reductions in brain volume and cognitive impairment. The work by researchers out of two Australian universities and one in Britain also now suggest that even low or moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy can lead to psychological and behavioral problems in offspring.
Binge drinking in adolescents, particularly in higher income countries, is believed to be a specific gateway to reduced brain volume, poorer white matter development that is tied to reduced brain efficiencies and declines in several cognitive functions.
Heavy alcohol use among older adults has been tied to an increased risk of dementia.
While the risk factors for all of these groups is significant, the impact differs because of varying levels of related consumption in each grouping.
Alcohol-use problems are relatively rare in older adults, yet the researchers point out that even limited drinking has been linked to a small but significant loss of brain volume in midlife.
Globally about 10 percent of women drink while pregnant. But in the U.S., for example, the rate is higher at over 11 percent and it’s rising, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The organization noted that consumption levels differ among ethnic groups with Hispanic women drinking the least while pregnant, while Native Americans, Native Alaskans, Asian and Pacific Islanders had the highest prevalence of drinking while pregnant at more than 18 percent.
The CDC went on to report that over 4 percent of pregnant women binge drink, with the highest percentage coming among women 18 to 24 years old. It also notes there are no known safe levels of drinking for pregnant women.
Significant numbers of teenagers and adolescents still consume alcohol and binge drink, but the levels of both have declined significantly in the last 20 years, which is encouraging.
Social scientist and medical experts now also warn of a new factor impacting the consumption equations. They note that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may undercut any progress made among certain demographics and acerbate existing problems in others. They worry, for example, that the short-term increase in alcohol consumption during this period could lead to long-term problems.
All this begs for developing greater awareness of the varying risks alcohol presents to different demographic groups, the Australian and British researchers report.
“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,” they concluded.