Alcohol and Cognitive Functions
Many individuals often start drinking alcohol to feel good. Moderate drinking can make some people feel happier, less stressed, and more friendly. Brain scans have revealed that these positive feelings are due to the release of endorphins, known as the “pleasure hormones.” But as people begin to drink more regularly, they may find that they now drink not necessarily to feel good but rather to avoid feeling bad. This change is due to the alterations that alcohol makes to their brains.
Regular drinkers may notice that, after a while, alcohol no longer affects them the way it once did. This wearing-down of effects occurs when a person has built up a tolerance to alcohol. The brain’s reward system can become worn out from frequent stimulation and lose some of its normal functioning. So, people with an alcohol tolerance might not feel as good as they once did after drinking the same amount. The changes alcohol makes to a person’s brain can change their behavior surrounding alcohol as well.
They may seek alcohol much more frequently and rely on it to deal with any negative feelings.
Tolerance typically leads to higher levels of alcohol consumption, which can harm the body and brain in various ways. Alcohol damages cells and cellular networks in the brain, and doctors are still not sure to what extent these cells can regrow.
Excessive drinking has been linked to an increased risk of dementia. You might have heard the term “wet brain” used to describe the negative effects of alcohol on the brain. “Wet brain” is an informal name for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a type of dementia caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1 in the brain.
Alcohol can interfere with the body’s absorption of vitamin B1 and inhibit the enzyme that converts vitamin B1 into a form that the body can use.
Heavy drinking can also accelerate memory loss in early old age.
In a 2014 study, the participants who had more than 2.5 drinks a day showed signs of cognitive decline up to six years earlier than the men who did not drink, were former drinkers or were moderate drinkers.
Alcohol and Brain Shrinkage
What exactly does alcohol do to your brain to hinder cognitive functioning? Numerous studies have suggested that drinking heavy alcohol over a long period may lead to brain shrinkage. Brain volume can be used to measure brain aging.
Thus, a decrease in volume may indicate that alcohol ages our brains faster, interfering with some cognitive functions. One such study examined MRI brain scans of people between the ages of 34 and 88. These participants were sorted into five categories: non-drinkers, former drinkers, low drinkers, moderate drinkers, or high drinkers.
The researchers found that overall, the more that people regularly drank, the lower their brain volume.
People who had more than 14 drinks per week (high drinkers) had an average reduction in brain volume of 1.6% compared to people who did not drink.
For every increase in the drinking category (e.g., low drinkers to moderate drinkers), brain volume decreased 0.25%.
This effect was slightly larger in women than in men. Heavy alcohol consumption appeared to have the biggest negative effect on women in their 70s in terms of brain volume.
Furthermore, the data suggested that those who had a steady 12-year history of heavy drinking had lower brain volume than those who had begun drinking heavily within the 12 years during which the study took place. This evidence further suggests that any potential damage may continue to increase with time.
The Risks of Moderate Drinking
It may seem obvious that heavy drinking can negatively impact your brain health. We often hear that too much of anything can be harmful. But even moderate drinking may have negative effects on your brain. Moderate drinking is typically defined as one or two drinks per day, and one drink equals 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer.
Many studies have suggested that moderate drinking may offer protection against heart disease. Therefore, it may seem that moderate drinking cannot possibly be as harmful as drinking heavily. But according to the research, the positive may not outweigh the negative when it comes to how alcohol affects critical thinking.
A relatively recent study reinforced the data from earlier studies and confirmed that even moderate drinking might lead to shrinkage in areas of the brain involved in cognition and learning.
This long-term study assessed participants over 30 years.
In the beginning, all of the participants were healthy, and none were dependent on alcohol. They recorded their alcohol intake throughout the study period and took tests to measure their cognitive functioning, including memory, reasoning, and verbal skills. At the end of the study, the researchers took MRI scans of the participants’ brains.
The researchers found that the amount that people drank was related to the amount of brain shrinkage they sustained. They specifically examined shrinkage of the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory and reasoning.
Moderate drinkers showed three times the amount of shrinkage in the hippocampus compared to those who did not drink. The heavy drinkers did show the most shrinkage and most rapid decline in the performance of simple cognitive tasks, but the impact of moderate drinking is still notable.
How much is too much?
Given these results, is there a “safe” amount of alcohol that you can still enjoy in moderation? Some research has shown that drinking seven or fewer drinks per week does not appear to have any harmful effects, but drinking eight or less per week does—eight drinks per week averages out to about one drink per day, which is still considered moderate.
While it is generally wise to avoid more than one alcoholic beverage per day, it is also important to remember that the effects of alcohol can differ from person to person. Despite any potential positive effects of moderate drinking, alcohol is still an addictive substance. It can have negative consequences in various ways, even if it does not affect your brain volume.
How Long Does the Damage Last?
Some more encouraging news is that the type of brain cell damage that research has examined has improved within weeks of stopping drinking. Thus, the harm from brain shrinkage can be repaired to an extent.
But whether the brain can be fully healed and how long complete repair would take are still uncertain. It may not be enough to cut back on alcohol intake to repair the damage. It may take long-term, total abstinence for the brain to heal.
An important point to remember is that alcohol can have many other negative effects on the body. The effects of alcohol on the brain can result from other causes besides brain shrinkage. For instance, alcohol consumption has been linked to a higher risk of stroke when blood flow to the brain is blocked.
Additionally, cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, is another common complication of heavy drinking, leading to a buildup of toxins in the brain, causing brain fog (loss of memory and confusion).
In any case, the damage from alcohol, whether related to cognitive function or not, can be deadly. In one study, those who had ten or more drinks per week had life expectancies 1 to 2 years shorter than those who had five or fewer drinks per week. Life expectancies lowered by 4 to 5 years for those who had 18 or more drinks a week.
Remember that you do not have to wait for substance abuse to turn into severe addiction to seek treatment with all of these risks in mind.
The Conclusion About Alcohol and Critical Thinking
The reason many people drink is to experience the positive, relaxing effects of alcohol. But we cannot deny the array of negative effects also associated with drinking. More often than not, an increase in alcohol consumption means an increase in negative effects.
Not only do those who drink regularly and heavily have the potential to develop an addiction, but they also risk increased chances of a variety of health complications, including brain damage.
Research has illustrated a strong correlation between regular drinking and lowered brain volume, indicating a mental decline.
Even in moderate amounts, alcohol can damage parts of the brain involved in memory, learning, and critical thinking. These effects may take place over an extended period, but the harm adds up.
Perhaps you’ve noticed a loved one increasing their drinking, or you’re considering cutting back your drinking, and you’re worried about the unseen damage it may be causing.
It can be difficult to cut back on drinking when you cannot immediately see the negative effects.
Furthermore, if a person is addicted, they will have a harder time limiting their intake despite knowing the negative consequences.
Fortunately, help is available to anyone struggling with alcohol use, and we can help you discover your best options for addiction treatment or prevention. Call (888) 906-0952 today to discuss alcohol abuse and addiction support in your area.
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