5 Scary Ways Alcohol Damages the Brain

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Dr. Daniel Amen
Amen Clinics
Jan. 14 2021

1. Shrinks brain volume

People who drink just 1-7 drinks per week have smaller brains than nondrinkers, according to a 2008 study at Johns Hopkins that appeared in Archives of Neurology. This same research found that people who have 2 or more drinks per day have even more brain shrinkage. Changes in the brain can occur early. A 2020 study in Scientific Reports found that moderate drinking was associated with lower total brain volume in early middle age (ages 39-45) in both males and females. Research on adolescents and alcohol consumption in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience showed that those who became heavy drinkers between the ages of 12-17 compared to those who did not drink alcohol started out with less brain volume and lost even more brain volume over time. When it comes to the brain, size matters!

2. Lowers blood flow to the brain

The brain scans of heavy drinkers show reduced overall blood flow to the brain. The brain uses 20% of the blood flow in your body and it is critical for healthy brain function. When levels are low it can lead to a laundry list of problems—brain fog, poor decision-making, trouble concentrating, impulsivity, and more. It’s especially important to know that low blood flow on brain scans is the #1 predictor of future memory problems and Alzheimer’s disease.

SPECT Scan of heavy alcohol abuse.
3. Causes atrophy of the hippocampus

Drinking 1-2 glasses of wine a day, which is considered “moderate” drinking, leads to atrophy in the hippocampus, according to a 30-year study of 550 women and men that was published in 2017 in BMJ. The hippocampus is a critical brain region for learning and memory. In this study, people who had 4 or more drinks per day were 6 times more likely to have atrophy in this critically important region of the brain compared with nondrinkers, and moderate drinkers had 3 times the risk. The researchers noted that they found no protective effects from light drinking.

4. Reduces the number of new brain cells

Excessive alcohol consumption lowers the generation of new brain cells, especially in the hippocampus, according to animal research presented at Neuroscience in 2009. In the study, monkeys that consumed alcohol experienced a 58% decline in the number of new brain cells formed and a 63% reduction in the survival rate of new brain cells.

5. Increases the risk of dementia

Compared with non-drinkers and light drinkers, moderate to heavy drinkers have a 57% higher risk of dementia, according to research in The Journals of Gerontology, Series A. Drinking can literally make you lose your mind.

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