By John Salak –
Perhaps everything in moderation is not okay, at least when it comes to alcohol. Sure, numerous findings underscore the benefits of a drink or two daily. These studies note moderate to light drinking can reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes by up to 40 percent, help keep blood sugar levels in balance, ward off kidney stones and may slightly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
WebMD goes as far as to report that moderate drinkers tend to be more attractive than nondrinkers because they exercise more frequently, which improves their appearance. The American College of Cardiology also reported recently that a drink a day lowers stress levels in the brain, which among other things promotes heart health.
All of these benefits certainly go in the win column for moderate alcohol consumption. Unfortunately for those who like a glass of wine, tumbler of scotch or a mug of beer each day, the University of Pennsylvania just served up a big downer. Virtually any daily alcohol consumption is going to shrink a person’s brain. The university’s study found that just going from one to two drinks daily wasn’t just accelerating brain shrinkage, it had the equivalent impact of aging a brain by two years. Obviously, the negative impact on the brain grows with the more a person drinks.
Perhaps more startling was that it took virtually the smallest amount of alcohol to start the ball rolling downhill. Think about half a beer. The Pennsylvania researchers came to these discomforting conclusions after analyzing data sets from more than 35,000 adults. “The fact that we have such a large sample size allows us to find subtle patterns, even between drinking the equivalent of half a beer and one beer a day,” noted Gideon Nave, a corresponding author on the study and faculty member at Penn’s Wharton School.”
Obviously, it is no secret that heavy drinking carriers all sorts of physical and mental health risks. But the researchers involved in this study were admittedly surprised by the negative impact even a small amount of consumption can have, especially when compared to what’s considered safe drinking levels. “These findings contrast with scientific and governmental guidelines on safe drinking limits,” warned Henry Kranzler, who directs the Penn Center for Studies of Addiction. “For example, although the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that women consume an average of no more than one drink per day, recommended limits for men are twice that, an amount that exceeds the consumption level associated in the study with decreased brain volume.”
Earlier research into alcohol’s impact remains critical, but they lacked the power of large datasets, explained Nave, a specialist in data analysis. “Having this dataset is like having a microscope or a telescope with a more powerful lens,” he added. “You get a better resolution and start seeing patterns and associations you couldn’t before.” The message was clear. Going from zero to one alcohol units didn’t make much of a difference in brain volume. However, the researchers discovered that increasing consumption from one to two or two to three units a day was associated with reductions in both gray and white matter.
Ultimately, the negative ramifications get more pronounced the more people drink. Unfortunately, this means “the people who can benefit the most from drinking less are the people who are already drinking the most,” Nave explained.