This is Your Brain on Just One Drink

The more you drink, the more your brain may shrink.

These effects begin with just one pint of beer or glass of wine. That’s according to findings from a study of how alcohol impacts the brain.

Using data from MRI imaging on 36,000 adults, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania looked at the link between alcohol and the brain. The volunteers responded to surveys about their drinking habits while the team looked at their grey and white brain matter volume changes. As we age, the brain naturally loses volume or, in other words, loses brain cells called neurons. But when outside factors accelerate this loss, it essentially means the brain is “aging” at a faster rate.

The findings:

  • In 50 years olds who drank one 16 ounce beer or a 6-ounce glass of wine per day (two alcohol units), their brains appeared to be two years older than those who only drank half a beer or half a glass of wine per day (one alcohol unit).
  • As the drinking went up, so did brain aging. Going from two alcohol units to three alcohol units per day saw an aging effect on the brain similar to 3.5 years.
  • Nondrinkers who began consuming one alcohol unit per day (about one shot or half a pint of beer) had brains that aged by about half a year.

The takeaway:

Anti-aging is not just for your face. Keeping your brain from aging and losing volume too quickly could help stave off cognitive decline or other neurodegenerative diseases. Previous studies have already shown that excessive alcohol intake is associated with decreased brain structure and volume. But what this study brings to light is that even moderate drinking may have a less than ideal effect.

“There is some evidence that the effect of drinking on the brain is exponential,” says Remi Daviet, co-author of the study. “So, one additional drink in a day could have more of an impact than any of the previous drinks that day. That means that cutting back on that final drink of the night might have a big effect in terms of brain aging.”

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