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The evidence of alcohol’s harmful effects on brain health is compelling, but now experts have identified three key periods in life when alcohol’s effects are likely to be greatest.

Researchers in Australia and the UK today write in the BMJ that evidence suggests three periods of dynamic brain changes that may be particularly sensitive to the harmful effects of alcohol: pregnancy (from conception to birth), later adolescence (15-19 years old), and older adults (over 65 years of age).

They warn that these key periods “could increase sensitivity to the effects of environmental exposures such as alcohol” and say that harm prevention measures “need to be viewed over the long term”.

Globally, around 10% of pregnant women consume alcohol, with rates in European countries significantly higher than the global average, they write.

Heavy alcohol consumption during pregnancy can lead to disorders of the fetal alcohol spectrum, which are associated with extensive reductions in brain volume and cognitive impairment. However, data suggest that even low or moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy is significantly linked to poorer mental and behavioral outcomes in offspring.

In relation to adolescence, more than 20% of 15-19 year olds in Europe and other high-income countries report at least occasional excessive alcohol (defined as 60g of ethanol on a single occasion).

Studies show that the transition to binge drinking in adolescence is associated with decreased brain volume, poorer white matter development (critical to efficient brain function), and small to moderate deficits in a range of cognitive functions.

And in the elderly, alcohol use disorders have recently been shown to be one of the most modifiable risk factors for all types of dementia (especially early onset) when compared to other established risk factors such as high blood pressure and smoking.

Although alcohol use disorders are relatively rare in older adults, the authors point out that even moderate drinking has been shown to be linked to a small but significant loss of brain volume in midlife, although more studies are needed to test whether these structural changes change affect dysfunction.

Additionally, demographic trends could amplify the effects of alcohol use on brain health, they write. For example, women today drink alcohol just as frequently as men and suffer alcohol-related harm, and global consumption is expected to continue to increase over the next decade.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on alcohol use and the harm it caused is unclear, but alcohol use has increased over the long term following other major public health crises.

As such, they call for an integrated approach to harm reduction at all ages.

“Population-based interventions such as low-risk drinking guidelines, alcohol pricing policies and lower limits on driving drinks must be accompanied by the development of training and grooming pathways that consider the human brain to be at risk throughout life,” they conclude.

Low alcohol consumption during pregnancy can affect the child’s brain development

More information:
Lifetime Perspective on Alcohol and Brain Health, The BMJ, DOI: 10.1136 / bmj.m4691 Provided by the British Medical Journal

Quote: Drinking Linked to Brain Health Worsening from Cradle to Grave (2020, December 3), accessed December 4, 2020 from health-cradle.html

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