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Great, now even moderate drinking is bad for us

In recent years, you’ve probably read that a glass or two or wine a day is fine. Think again.

While the jury has long been out on the terrible effects of heavy and binge-drinking, us “moderates” have been smugly sipping away, confident that we aren’t doing ourselves much damage. “This may even be good for us”, we said, downing our Shirazes.

But new research has found that even moderate amounts of alcohol can damage the brain and reduce cognitive functions.

We aren’t talking about some a little pop science study involving a survey of 50 people or a Buzzfeed quiz (Which Cocktail Are You?) either.

In a study published in the British Medical Journal researchers from the University of Oxford and the University College of London tracked the alcohol intake of 550 men and women from 1985-2015.

Over the 30-year period, the researchers measured the participants’ alcohol intake and performance in cognitive tasks. At the end of the study, MRI scans were taken to assess the state of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is associated with memory and learning.

For the study, a 175ml glass of 14% strength wine was considered 2.4 units and a pint of high-strength beer of cider (5.2%) was considered 3 units.

The study classified the participants’ alcohol intake as follows.

Abstinent: Less than 1 unit
Light drinkers: 1 to 7 units a week (about three glasses of wine).
Female moderate drinkers: 7 – 14 units a week (max 5 glasses of wine or 4 pints)
Male moderate drinkers: 7 – 21 units a week (max 9 glasses of wine or 7 pints)
Female unsafe drinkers: over 14 units a week
Male unsafe drinkers: over 21 units a week

So according to the study, if you have a glass of wine every day and a few more at the weekend, you are well into the “unsafe” category. Yikes.

The study found that 13.6% of the women and 20% of the men were over the safe limits and that even moderate drinkers’ brains suffered long term effects from alcohol. The moderate group was three times more likely to have deteriorated hippocampi than those who didn’t drink at all.

Regarding cognitive function, high alcohol consumption was linked with lexical fluency. Over the thirty-year period, moderate drinkers were found to experience a 14% reduction in lexical fluency (essentially the ability to generate suitable words for a given category).

But before you tip all the booze down the sink, keep in mind that lots of things, including age, cause our brains to go downhill. One glaring problem with the study is that it relied on participants to self-report and they may not have been exactly honest about their alcohol consumption. (“I better just put down I had two”).

Eric Rimm, a professor of medicine and director for the program in cardiovascular epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told CNN that the abstainer group in the study was tiny and might have affected the results.

“There are so many other lifestyle factors that are not taken into account in this study, like nutrition,” he said. “Eating whole grains and fruits and vegetables have been linked to slower cognitive decline. Attributing mental decline to alcohol is too limited”.

At the end of the day, many of us could probably drink a bit less. According to the World Atlas, Aussies rank 22nd on the list of countries that consume the highest amount of alcohol per capita. Estonians are number one.

We’re a competitive nation and I honestly thought we would have been higher, but this is one contest we don’t want to win.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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