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Moderate Consumption of Alcohol May Negatively Affect the Brain

Jun 12, 2017 08:17 AM EDT

A new study by the University of Oxford and University College London revealed that people who moderately consume alcohol are more likely to develop brain changes associated with Alzheimer's disease and dementia than those who drink lightly or don't drink at all.

The study, published in the medical journal BMJ, showed that even moderate consumption of alcohol may increase the risk of hippocampal atrophy, which is a form of brain damage that affects spatial navigation and memory. Moderate consumption of alcohol is described as drinking 8 to 12 glasses of wine, bottles of beer or shots of liquor per week.

"These are people who are drinking at levels that many consider social drinkers, so they are not consuming a lot," said Dr. Anya Topiwala, a clinical lecturer in the University of Oxford's Department of Psychiatry and co-author of the study, in a report from CNN. "I wouldn't recommend light to moderate drinking as a strategy to avoid cognitive decline."

For the study, the researchers analyzed the data of 527 British civil servants included in the Whitehall II study, a healthy study that tracks disease and social behaviors of the participants for 30 years. The researchers asked the participants to record their drinking histories on multiple occasions. Additionally, the participants underwent MRI scans while repeatedly taking cognitive tests and a more extensive series of memory and thinking tests.

The researchers observed that participants who were classified as heavy drinkers have the highest risk of hippocampal atrophy. Furthermore, heavy drinkers also experience faster decline in their language skills and poorer white matter integrity.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that even moderate consumption of alcohol can negatively impact the brain. Moderate drinkers were three times more likely to develop hippocampal atrophy, compared to those who don't drink at all.

Despite the intriguing results of their study, the researchers noted that their research is purely observational. Due to this, they cannot establish a clear causal relationship between alcohol consumption of hippocampal atrophy. It is possible that the moderate to heavy drinkers in the study may share some activities that may alternately explain their hippocampal atrophy.

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