The impact of alcohol on your body changes as you age. While some differences are immediately recognizable (a terrible hangovers after one drink the night before, for example), others are a bit more subtle. “The effects of alcohol on the brain are dependent on age and daily consumption habits,” says Dr. Willeumier. “With aging, specific structural and functional changes happen in the brain, including thinning of the cerebral cortex, neuronal shrinkage, decreased spine density, decreased white-matter connectivity, and diminished neurotransmitter production.” Alcohol consumption only exacerbates symptoms of brain aging.
Dr. Willeumier cites an August 2020 neuroimaging study, published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. Researchers looked at 353 participants age 39 to 45 who underwent an MRI and used neurological and neuropsychiatric assessments to find that moderate alcohol consumption (fewer than three drinks per day for females, four drinks per day or less for males) was associated with a smaller brain volume. An October 2008 neuroimaging study, published in JAMA Neurology, looked at 1,839 participants age 33 to 88 and found that higher levels of alcohol consumption were associated with smaller brain volume.
“The prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are vulnerable to the aging process, and a decline in brain volume in these regions can contribute significantly to memory impairments,” says Dr. Willeumier. “Alcohol consumption has an added impact on the aging brain, particularly in these regions essential to cognitive function.”
How much you drink impacts the extent to which alcohol affects your brain. While the potential benefits of having one-to-two drinks per on cognitive health have been reported, Dr. Whilleumier says moderate alcohol consumption has been demonstrated to reduce hippocampal volume, the area of the brain essential to learning and memory, and decrease total brain volume.
“Moderate-to-heavy alcohol consumption, four or more drinks per day, is detrimental to brain function,” she says. “Ethanol can have a neurotoxic effect on the brain, leading to structural and functional brain damage. Heavy drinking can impact vascular function due to the inflammatory response and oxidative stress, increasing the risk of hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, and peripheral artery disease, which can adversely affect cognitive health.”
Heavy alcohol use is associated with an increased risk of dementia. A June 2018 study, published in The Lancet Public Health, “found in a cohort of 1,109,343 dementia cases that there was an association of alcohol use disorders with all types of dementia,” says Dr. Whilleumier. “The authors note that the burden of dementia is much larger than previously thought, with alcohol use disorders linked to a threefold increase risk of all types of dementia. Therefore, early detection and intervention in heavy alcohol users are essential in the prevention of dementia.”
While short-term impacts of alcohol like decreased attention, mood, and memory changes can be undone by abstaining from alcohol consumption, be mindful that long-term impacts are often irreversible.