A Drink a Day May be Harmful to Brain Health
The concept of “drinking in moderation” may soon become obsolete, as a number of research papers in the last several years have shed light on the harm of consuming any alcohol. The most recent of these is a paper published in the Public Library of Science that suggests even just one drink per day may be harmful to brain health.
Researchers at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom found that even one drink per day can result in higher iron levels in the brain, which can harm memory retention and cognitive function. The scientists examined 21,000 middle-aged and older adults, and those who drank as little as four beers a week showed notably more iron accumulation in their brains than non-drinkers.
“Even small amounts of alcohol, within current alcohol guidelines, could harm your brain.”
The researchers also found that iron buildup in the brain is associated with weaker scores on tests that measure reasoning, planning, problem-solving, and memory. Quoting lead researcher Dr. Anya Topiwala, “Even small amounts of alcohol, within current alcohol guidelines, could harm your brain.” The researchers concluded that while the brain requires some iron to function normally, an excess of iron in the brain can quickly become toxic, adversely affecting the brain’s critical cognitive and memory functions.
While the research did not prove it, the scientists in the study hypothesized that frequently drinking just one alcoholic beverage per day could lead to a slow deterioration in memory and a drop in reaction time, problem-solving, and the ability to plan and reason. All of these are also markers for the early stages of dementia.
What’s With “Moderate” Drinking, Anyway?
It’s been known that alcohol addicts tend to have higher iron levels in their brains than nondrinkers. But the findings cited above are the first to report higher iron levels in moderate drinkers.
So, where did this concept of “moderate” drinking originate?
Alcohol consumption is widely accepted in American society and has been for decades. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 54.9% of American adults say they regularly consume alcohol. Given the widespread consumption of alcohol across American society, public health leaders and medical organizations sought to get Americans to only drink “in moderation,” i.e., 1–2 drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
But the truth is, this medical advice was always a compromise. The ideal scenario would be that Americans would not consume alcohol at all, but many public health leaders saw that advice as unrealistic. However, in the face of the now all-too-obvious harm caused by even moderate alcohol consumption, some organizations are encouraging individuals to refrain from drinking alcohol. Quoting the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025, “Individuals who do not drink alcohol [should not] start drinking for any reason.” This recommendation should become the standard for all medical institutions and public health policymakers.
Alcohol and the Body, a Case Study in Harm
There is no shortage of information on the harm caused by alcohol consumption. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- At least 25% of adults aged 18 and older had one heavy drinking episode in the past year.
- Alcoholic liver disease deaths number almost 30,000 per year, and alcohol-induced deaths number some 49,000 per year.
Another CDC report noted that:
- One in six American adults drinks excessively, with 25% doing so weekly.
- Drinking to excess is responsible for more than 40% of alcohol-related deaths and more than 75% of the costs attributed to alcohol use.
- About 140,000 American die from alcohol-related causes each year, shortening the lifespan of victims by about 26 years.
- One in ten deaths among working-age adults is caused by alcohol.
- The economic toll of alcohol consumption (due to medical costs and lost workplace activity) is about $249 billion per year or about $2.05 per drink.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, even drinking in “moderation” can have long-term harmful effects on the following:
- Immune system
Perhaps most concerning of the negative health effects is that alcohol consumption has been linked to numerous cancers. The NIAAA and the National Cancer Institute both warn that cancer risks exist even in adults who do not drink excessively. In the words of NCI experts, “Even those who have no more than one drink per day and people who binge drink (those who consume 4 or more drinks for women and 5 or more drinks for men in one sitting) have a modestly increased risk of some cancers. Based on data from 2009, an estimated 3.5% of cancer deaths in the United States (about 19,500 deaths) were alcohol-related.” The increased risk of cancer for those who only drink “in moderation” should serve as a cautionary tale for people who think 1-2 drinks per day is safe.
The Case for an Alcohol-Free Life
With no proven health benefits and numerous harmful aspects, alcohol is something to be avoided, not celebrated. Americans should shift away from regular, even “moderate” alcohol consumption to improve their health and society’s overall health. An alcohol-free life is a much healthier and likely longer life.
- PLOS. “Associations between moderate alcohol consumption, brain iron, and cognition in U.K. Biobank participants: Observational and mendelian randomization analyses.” Public Library of Science, 2022. journals.plos.org
- U.S. News. “Even a Drink a Day Might Raise Brain Risks.” U.S. News, 2022. usnews.com
- NIAAA. “Alcohol Use in the United States.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2022. niaaa.nih.gov
- DGA. “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” Dietary Guidelines, 2020. dietaryguidelines.gov
- CDC. “Alcohol Use.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022. cdc.gov
- CDC. “Excessive Alcohol Use.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022. cdc.gov
- NIAAA. “Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2022. niaaa.nih.gov
- NCI. “Alcohol and Cancer Risk.” National Cancer Institute, 2021. cancer.gov