Long-term efforts are needed to avoid damage, experts say.
The evidence for the deleterious effects of alcohol were persuasive, but now experts were able to pinpoint three main stages in life when the effects of alcohol are likely to be severe.
In the December 2020 issue of The BMJ, researchers from Australia and the United Kingdom found that brain dynamic shifts in later adolescence and older adulthood are especially susceptible to the adverse effects of alcohol consumption (over 65 years).
They argue that the intake of alcohol during these crucial times increases vulnerability to the effects of environmental exposures, and that harm reduction measures need to be long-term.
In developed countries about 10% of pregnant women drink alcohol, although concentrations are far higher in Eastern European countries.
Heavy drinking during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), which is associated with a wide variety of disabilities.
But evidence show that even a small amount of alcohol during pregnancy can cause negative effects in the baby.
Around 20% of 15- to 19-year-olds in high-income countries record at least occasional binge drinking, and this proportion is higher in Europe compared to the United States.
The study indicates that the transition to binge drinking is associated with a reduced volume of the brain, lower levels of white matter growth and decreased scores on a number of cognitive tests.
Researchers have recently found alcohol use disorder to be one of the most modifiable risk factors for all forms of dementia as opposed to other known risk factors like hypertension and smoking.
Even mild alcohol intake in older adults has been shown to be associated with a small but substantial loss of brain volume, although further studies are needed to rule out whether these structural changes translate into functional impairment.
In addition, the changing demographic composition can worsen the impact of alcohol consumption on brain health.
Female alcohol consumption is increasingly popular, as is alcohol-related damage, and consumption is expected to continue to increase into the future.
The effect of Covid 19 on alcohol consumption is not clear, but it is likely that people increased their alcohol consumption in the long-term after other public health crises.
Therefore, the paper proposes an integrated approach to harm reduction for all ages.
“Population-based interventions such as low-risk drinking guidelines, alcohol pricing policies, and lower drink-driving limits must be accompanied by the development of education and care pathways that consider the human brain as a risk factor throughout life,” they conclude.
References: “Lifetime perspective on alcohol and brain health” by Louise Mewton, Briana Lees, and Rahul Tony Rao, BMJ 2011; 343:d6369.