New Study Shows Even a Small Amount of Alcohol Ages Your Brain

Research from the University of Southern California found that just one gram can age the brain a week.

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We all know that drinking alcohol has a whole slew of negative effects on your health, wreaking havoc on your sleep, making you gain weight, and leading to liver damage. But an increasing amount of research is focusing on the long-term impact of alcohol on the brain. One 2018 study published in the British Medical Journal found that people who drank more than 14 units—10 milliliters or 8 grams—of alcohol per week on a regular basis had an increased risk of dementia. Now, a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports has revealed the dramatic aging effects of alcohol on the brain. According to the research, every gram of alcohol consumed per day ages the brain 0.02 years.

For their research, scientists at the University of Southern California looked at brain scans of 17,308 people between the ages of 45 to 81, then trained a computer to assess the ages of the brains in the scans. The researchers compared the results with the participants' chronological ages and their self-reports on how much they drink and smoke. As a result, they concluded that just one gram of alcohol consumed per day ages the brain 0.02 years, which is roughly a week. Given that a standard glass of wine or bottle of beer contains roughly 14 grams of alcohol, that's pretty significant damage.

The study's findings also showed that the brains of people who reported drinking on a daily basis looked about five months older on average than those who consumed more moderate amounts of alcohol.

The effects of smoking, however, were even more severe. The brains of those who smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for a prolonged period of time looked to be six to seven months older on average than those who only smoked occasionally or not at all.

Of course, there are a variety of other factors that have an effect on your brain health, including what you eat and how much you exercise. Certain cognitive habits—such as reading, doing puzzles, and practicing meditation—have also been shown to help people stay sharp well into old age. But this USC study on the aging effects of alcohol on the brain—one of the largest of its kind—certainly suggests that it's best to cut back on the booze to avoid cognitive decline.

"We know that, in general, drinking to excess—more than 21 drinks in a week for four or five years—is bad for brain health in most individuals," Marlene Oscar Berman, PhD, a leading researcher on the brain effects of alcohol, told Mass General Hospital in 2017. "For many people it boils down to this: If you want to drink, stay healthy. And consider cutting down or stopping when you reach middle age to reduce the growing risk of harmful effects on your brain. … The bottom line is: Be sensible. Alcohol consumption is an aspect of brain health that should be carefully considered."

And that's exactly what people have seemingly started to realize these days. In the past year, there's been a shift in Americans' attitudes toward alcohol consumption, leading to the sober curious movement, which encourages people to be more mindful of how they feel when they drink.

"I decided to quit drinking because I realized I never wanted to stop at one," sober mom blogger Celeste Yvonne told Best Life in 2019. "My dad was an alcoholic and I saw how that destroyed his health with a stroke at age 52. I also saw firsthand how my dad's alcoholism affected our family, and I did not want that for mine."

Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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