Studies Warn of Alcohol’s Damaging Effect on the Brain
Many studies show how healthy foods and activities can improve one’s brain health. Other studies, conversely, warn of products to avoid. A prime suspect: alcohol, especially in large doses. Serious and persistent changes in the brain can occur in people who have been drinking large amounts of alcohol for long periods of time, a government health alert warns.
Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain1
Heavy drinking may have extensive and far-reaching effects on the brain, according to an alcohol alert issued by the National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Negative effects may range from simple “slips” in memory to permanent and debilitating conditions that require lifetime custodial care, NIAAA states. But even moderate drinking, it adds, leads to short-term impairment, as shown by extensive research on the impact of drinking on driving.
Not everyone is equally susceptible. Various factors influence how and to what extent alcohol affects the brain.
NIAA says the variables include how much and how often a person drinks; the age at which he or she first began drinking, and how long he or she has been drinking; the person’s age, level of education, gender, genetic background, and family history of alcoholism; whether he or she is at risk as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure; and his or her general health status.
Both men and women who drink heavily show signs of similar learning and memory problems, studies show. But women may be susceptible earlier. Women who reported cognitive problems had been drinking excessively for only about half as long as alcoholic men in the studies. This indicates that women’s brains, like their other organs, are more vulnerable to alcohol–induced damage than men’s, NIAAA says. While alcohol’s risks to the liver are well known, many are not aware of how a damaged liver can affect the brain.
Symptoms can include mental confusion and difficulty with muscle coordination. Other symptoms may include shortened attention span and difficulty remembering new information. For example, some with this condition can discuss in detail an event in their lives, but an hour later might not remember ever having the conversation, NIAAA notes.
Good News in Abstinence
Most alcoholics with cognitive impairment show at least some improvement in brain structure and functioning within a year of abstinence, although some people take much longer, the alert notes. Clinicians must consider a variety of treatment methods to help people stop drinking and to recover from alcohol–related brain impairments. These treatments should be tailored to the individual patient, NIAAA advises.
Pharmacists can play a supporting role in helping patients understand the risks of alcohol consumption, particularly as drinking can negatively affect many medicines.
To read the NIAA alert, visit https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm