These Are the Ages When Alcohol Is Most Dangerous to the Brain, Researchers Say

Illustration for article titled These Are the Ages When Alcohol Is Most Dangerous to the Brain, Researchers Say
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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.

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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.

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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.”

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Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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“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.

Man o’ man, I wonder if a lot of stuff happens between study and policy.

Speaking of which, a wonderful book review of “Alcohol and Public Policy: Beyond the Shadow of Prohibition.”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK216414/

This discussion on sort of what sold the government at the time on prohibition was very interesting:

The mandate that the prohibitionists encouraged government to accept was designed to curb extremist behavior. Rich and poor, the exploited and the exploiter were locked in a folie à deux. The alcohol addict and the millionaire brewer were each impulse-ridden. The gilded capitalist and the beer-swilling slum dweller were both dedicated to consumption. By contrast, a prohibitionist writer defined his fellow activists and himself: “We are the whole better class: the working, paying, thriving, home-loving masses, whose lives are lived between and distinct from the idle on the one hand, and the vicious on the other. … We represent,” he said, “teachers and professional men, clerks, skilled mechanics, and railroad men. Drunkenness and tippling belong now to the very rich, the reckless, the ignorant, the vicious, and the very poor” (Blocker 1976, p. 16)

A folie à deux according to google is a shared disorder or psychosis.

It seems like that progressive era was framed as the middle class versus classes on either end of the economic spectrum. For this progressive era, same as it ever was, but a bit different. Like wealthy family foundations with missions to end all societal ills.