Alcohol has many well-known negative effects on our health, but a new paper this week highlights what are likely the most harmful periods during a lifetime to have alcohol in your system, at least when it comes to our brains.
The paper, published as an editorial in the BMJ on Friday, was written by researchers from the UK and Australia: Louise Mewton, Briana Lees, and Rahul Tony Rao. Mewton and Rao have studied the aging brain, while Lees specializes in mental health and substance use. Together, they sum up much of the current research on how alcohol can influence the brain and body over the course of our lives.
As you might expect, exposure to alcohol can be especially harmful in the earliest stages of development, starting from when a fetus is in the womb. Heavy alcohol use during pregnancy is known to raise the odds of children being born with lifelong neurological impairment and other congenital defects—a condition called fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The authors also point to research suggesting that even light-to-moderate drinking during pregnancy could have subtle negative effects on a child’s brain health later on.
The next peak of alcohol danger seems to come when we’re in our mid-to-late teens. Research has shown that 15- to 19-year-olds often start their alcohol habit by binge drinking, and this heavy drinking has been linked to decreased brain volume, nerve cell connectivity, and small declines in cognitive function, the authors note.
Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, there’s old age (65 and above). Binge drinking is less common in older people. But those with lengthy periods of heavy drinking are known to have an increased risk of dementia and cognitive decline as they reach their golden years.
As the authors point out, there’s still more research that needs to be done in showing how much alcohol use is needed to negatively affect the brain at various points of our lives. Some studies, for instance, have found that light alcohol use is actually linked to improved brain health in older people. But these sorts of observational studies have their limitations, and other recent research has suggested that there’s truly no “healthy” level of alcohol use—just relatively lower levels of risk. Even light alcohol consumption has been linked to a higher cancer risk, for instance.
Though a world without alcohol seems unimaginable (and, given what happened the last time people tried to outlaw it, problematic to say the least), we could all probably stand to benefit from policies that make it easier for us to cut down on how much we drink regularly, no matter how young or old we are.
“A lifecourse perspective on brain health supports the formulation of policy and public health interventions to reduce alcohol use and misuse at all ages,” the authors wrote. “This could increase longevity and quality of life by reducing the prevalence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, aberrant neurocognitive development in adolescence, and dementia in later life.”