There are plenty of reasons to avoid drinking too much wine or beer, especially since alcohol can be harmful to your health in various ways. However, you might now want to cut out alcohol completely—or as much as possible—as a recent study has found that even drinking a moderate amount may be aging your brain faster.
In the July 2022 study, published in PLOS Medicine, researchers collected data from 20,965 participants whose mean age was 55. While 2.7% of those involved didn’t drink any alcohol, the remaining participants were drinking an average of 18 units every week. To put that into perspective, 18 units is about the same as six sizable glasses of wine. If you prefer beer, then you’ll be interested to know that it’s the same as seven and a half cans of your favorite brew. That turned out to be too much when it comes to keeping the brain healthy.
“In the largest study to date, we found drinking greater than 7 units of alcohol weekly associated with iron accumulation in the brain,” said the University of Oxford’s Anya Topiwala, who was behind the study, per EurekAlert! “Higher brain iron in turn linked to poorer cognitive performance. Iron accumulation could underlie alcohol-related cognitive decline.”
“The researchers found that moderate alcohol consumption was associated with greater iron accumulation in the basal ganglia, a group of brain regions that helps us perform cognitive, emotional, and movement-related functions,” Emma Laing, PhD, RDN, a clinical professor at the University of Georgia and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Eat This, Not That!. “Higher levels of iron in the basal ganglia were associated with poorer measures of cognitive function.”
“The brain is very sensitive to changes in iron metabolism,” Laing says, explaining that iron in the brain causes cognitive decline. “Abnormally high iron in the brain has been associated with oxidative stress, which leads to neuronal damage and cell death.”
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Tips to cut back on alcohol
If you’d like to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink to avoid potentially aging your brain, Laing says that you might want to “choose light-alcohol, non-alcoholic, or alcohol-free beverages.” Beyond that, “having one or two glasses of water along with each drink will help curb over-consumption, as will avoidance of drinking alcohol on an empty stomach.”
However, “while some people might enjoy replacing their alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic alternatives, those who suffer from or who are recovering from an alcohol addiction are cautioned from trying these, as the alternatives might heighten the urge to drink alcohol.” Indeed, Laing notes that “the health implications of alcohol consumption depend so highly on the individual, their health conditions, and medications they take.”
Finally, Laing says, “If you tend to drink excessively or notice that alcohol causes problems in your life, counseling and recovery programs would be recommended. Your primary care provider can also advise you on appropriate resources. If you don’t drink, starting this habit is not recommended.”