Alcohol consumption is one of the leading contributors to the global burden of disease and to high healthcare and economic costs. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is one of the most prevalent mental health conditions worldwide, with harmful effects on physical, cognitive, and social functioning.
Chronic excessive alcohol consumption is associated with direct and indirect adverse effects, including (but not limited to) cardiovascular disease, nutritional deficiency, cancer, and accelerated aging.
The chronic use of alcohol is associated with changes in the brain structure and connectivity. Studies have shown that chronic alcohol consumption (3 or more drinks for women and 4 or more drinks for men on any day) is associated with widespread patterns of brain changes, primarily in the frontal, diencephalic, hippocampal, and cerebellar structures.
In a recently published study, researchers found that alcohol intake is negatively associated with global brain volume measures, regional gray matter volumes, and white matter microstructure.
Study development and Results
The researchers used imaging data from 36,678 generally healthy middle-aged and older adults from the UK Biobank, controlling numerous potential confounds.
The researchers hypothesized a negative relationship between alcohol intake and global gray matter volume (GMV) and white matter volume (WMV) in individuals who consume large amounts of alcohol, i.e. females who report consuming more than 18 units/week and males who report consuming more than 24 units/week.
One unit equals 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol, which is around the amount of alcohol the average adult can process in an hour. For example, a pint of strong lager contains 3 units of alcohol, whereas the same volume of lower-strength lager has just over 2 units.
On average the researchers found that people at age 50 who drank 2 alcohol units per day in the last month had brains that appeared two years older than those who only drank one unit. Also, the brains of people of the same age who reported drinking three alcohol units a day had reductions in both white and gray matter that looked as if they had added 3.5 years to the ages of their brains.
Daviet, R., Aydogan, G., Jagannathan, K. et al. Associations between alcohol consumption and gray and white matter volumes in the UK Biobank. Nat Commun 13, 1175 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-28735-5