Alcohol and brain health is a good news/bad news situation. The relationship between alcohol and brain health is complex, so we’ll break down the basics.
First, some important definitions:
Light-Moderate Alcohol Use = 1 to 2 drinks per day
Heavy-Excessive Alcohol Use = 3 or more drinks per day
And “catching up” on the weekend does not help your brain health.
The Good News About Alcohol
Several studies indicate that light to moderate alcohol use is protective against cardiovascular disease, owing to the effects of alcohol itself and to antioxidant polyphenol compounds found in many alcoholic drinks, such as red wine.
Moderate amounts of alcohol raise levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol), and higher HDL levels are associated with greater protection against heart disease. There is a consistent and strong correlation between good cardiovascular health and good brain health.
Light to moderate alcohol intake has also been linked with a lower risk for both ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke. However, these benefits quickly disappear at more than two drinks per day – excessive alcohol consumption is associated with increased risk for hemorrhagic and ischemic stroke.
The Bad News About Alcohol
Heavy and excessive alcohol consumption can lead to many bad outcomes, including serious injury, accidental death, liver disease, serious memory impairment and early onset dementia, to name a few.
Let’s focus on the acute, short term effects and longer effects of too much alcohol:
Binge Drinking and Blackouts
Acute alcohol intoxication can result in a memory “blackout”, where the user might not be able to recall any events during the period of intoxication. (See retrograde amnesia)
At high doses, alcohol significantly inhibits neuronal activity in the CA1 and CA3 pyramidal cell layers of the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is intimately involved in forming and encoding new memories:
Some research indicates that women are more susceptible to alcohol induced blackouts than men. This might be due to gender differences in how alcohol is metabolized in the body.
Habitual excessive drinking also blunts the brain’s “reward circuits”, which can greatly reduce the positive effects many people feel from light-moderate alcohol consumption.
Long Term Effects of Chronic Alcoholism
The unfortunate but common outcome of long term heavy-excessive alcohol use is Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS).
Symptoms of WKS include:
– Loss of long term memory
– Inability to form new memories (see anterograde amnesia)
– Hallucinations, confusion, delirium
– Permanent loss of balance, loss of motor control
Many symptoms of WKS are permanent. The best way to avoid alcohol induced WKS is to understand the long term negative (and non-reversible) effects of excessive alcohol consumption.
Prolonged alcoholism also raises the risk of hepatic encephalopathy, a condition brought about by liver dysfunction (typically liver cirrhosis).
Bottom line: treat alcohol like a powerful drug. A very moderate amount can improve cardiovascular and cognitive health, but it can quickly become dangerous when used excessively.
Worried about the memory health of someone close to you?
Try the Memory Loss Checklist to determine the probability of serious memory impairment.