By Theresa Tamkins
What’s good for the heart may hurt the brain, according to a new study of the effects of alcohol.
People who drink alcohol — even the moderate amounts that help prevent heart disease — have a smaller brain volume than those who do not, according to a study in the Archives of Neurology.
While a certain amount of brain shrinkage is normal with age, greater amounts in some parts of the brain have been linked to dementia.
“Decline in brain volume — estimated at 2 percent per decade — is a natural part of aging,” says Carol Ann Paul, who conducted the study when she was at the Boston University School of Public Health. She had hoped to find that alcohol might protect against such brain shrinkage.
“However, we did not find the protective effect,” says Paul, who is now an instructor in the neuroscience program at Wellesley College. “In fact, any level of alcohol consumption resulted in a decline in brain volume.”
In the study, Paul and colleagues looked at 1,839 healthy people with an average age of about 61. The patients underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain and reported how much they tippled.
Overall, the more alcohol consumed, the smaller the brain volume, with abstainers having a higher brain volume than former drinkers, light drinkers (one to seven drinks per week), moderate drinkers (eight to 14 drinks per week), and heavy drinkers (14 or more drinks per week).
Men were more likely to be heavy drinkers than women. But the link between brain volume and alcohol wasn’t as strong in men. For men, only those who were heavy drinkers had a smaller brain volume than those who consumed little or no alcohol.
In women, even moderate drinkers had a smaller brain volume than abstainers or former drinkers.