A new study published in the October issue of Archives of Neurology reports that people who drink more alcohol have smaller total brain volume.

Every ten years of age yields an estimated 1.9% decrease in brain volume and an increase in white matter lesions. People who are developing dementia or problems with thinking, learning, and memory also tend to have lower brain volumes and larger white matter lesions. In light of previous research that has shown a decrease in risk of cardiovascular disease among people who moderately consumed alcohol, researchers were curious to see if a relationship exists between alcohol and brain volume. The investigators theorized that a slow-down in brain volume decline may be linked to small amounts of alcohol since the brain receives blood from this same cardiovascular system.

The study, conducted by Carol Ann Paul, M.S. (Wellesley College, Mass.) and colleagues, consisted of 1,839 adults who were about 60 years old. The participants were part of the Framingham Offspring Study – children of the original Framingham Heart Study participants – and their spouses. Each participant provided data on the number of alcoholic drinks they consumed per week, age, sex, education, height, body mass index, and the Framingham Stroke Risk Profile (a metric based on age, sex, blood pressure, and other factors that contribute to a person’s risk of stroke). In addition, researchers utilized health examination information and results of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests that patients received between 1999 and 2001.

The authors found that women were less likely than men to be moderate or heavy drinkers and the majority of participants reported low alcohol consumption. Of chief concern, they found that, “There was a significant negative linear relationship between alcohol consumption and total cerebral brain volume.”

The link between drinking and decline in brain volume appeared to be stronger in women, even though men were more likely to drink alcohol. The authors partially explain this finding by pointing out that women are smaller and more susceptible to the effects of alcohols. They also suggest that other biological factors may be involved.

“The public health effect of this study gives a clear message about the possible dangers of drinking alcohol.” conclude the researchers. “Prospective longitudinal studies are needed to confirm these results as well as to determine whether there are any functional consequences associated with increasing alcohol consumption. This study suggests that, unlike the associations with cardiovascular disease, alcohol consumption does not have any protective effect on brain volume.”

Association of Alcohol Consumption With Brain Volume in the Framingham Study
Carol Ann Paul; Rhoda Au; Lisa Fredman; Joseph M. Massaro; Sudha Seshadri; Charles DeCarli; Philip A. Wolfesearch Program Working Group
Archives of Neurology (2008); 65[10]: pp. 1363-1367.
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Written by: Peter M Crosta