Social Drinking Can Cause Brain to Shrink

Wednesday July 4 2:34 PM ET
Social Drinking Can Cause Brain to Shrink: Study
By Suzanne Rostler

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - That daily wine habit you've adopted for the sake of your heart may be harming your brain, recent study findings suggest.

According to the report, drinking contributed to shrinkage of the frontal lobe, the center for emotions, planning and other higher behavior, particularly as individuals aged. Studies have shown that this area is highly susceptible to alcoholic brain damage.

To examine whether alcohol had an effect on the brains of non-alcoholics, researchers measured the frontal lobe volumes of more than 1,400 individuals ranging in age from their 30s to 60s using a scanning technique called MRI.

Older individuals were nearly three times more likely to show brain shrinkage in this region than individuals in their 30s, Dr. Motoo Kubota and colleagues from Chiba University in Japan report in the July issue of the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.

"Heavy alcohol consumption might exaggerate brain shrinkage in social drinkers. Chronic heavy alcohol consumption should be avoided," Kubota told Reuters Health.

The good news is that alcoholic brain damage is partly reversible. Individuals who give up the bottle can recover brain volume and boost blood flow.

The investigators found that the frontal lobe had shrunk in less than 8% of individuals between 30 and 40 years old, compared with nearly 16% of those in their 40s and 38% of those in their 50s. About 61% of people in their 60s had shrunken frontal lobes.

Heavy drinkers were nearly twice as likely to experience brain shrinkage as people who did not drink alcohol, and moderate consumption did not appear to have any effect on the brain. For people aged 30 to 50, heavy drinking doubled the risk that the volume of the brain's frontal lobe would decrease.

In older individuals, however, heavy drinking had little effect. Older individuals may have moderated their consumption of alcohol, the researchers suggest.

"Light to moderate alcohol consumption seemed not to affect brain volume, whereas heavy alcohol consumption might exaggerate brain shrinkage in the non-alcoholic middle aged population," the study concludes.

The researchers estimate that aging accounts for about 30% of brain shrinkage and heavy alcohol consumption for about 10%.

SOURCE: Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 2001;71:104-106.

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