• Concern about Australia's problem with alcohol have dipped since lock-out laws were introduced. (AAP)Source: AAP
Even if you drink alcohol in moderation, new research suggests that you may still be at risk of brain damage over the long-term.
Michaela Morgan

7 Jun 2017 - 8:34 AM  UPDATED 7 Jun 2017 - 9:10 AM

If you’re partial to a cheeky glass of wine or two after work, or maybe even a couple of modest beers at the end of a long day, you might need to rethink your drinking habits.

A new report published by The BMJ has found that even moderate drinking over the long-term could damage part of the brain, the hippocampus, which - when degenerated- may lead to Alzheimer's disease and other brain-related conditions.

Moderate and lifestyle drinkers who consume between 14-21 units (112- 168 grams) of alcohol per week over the long-term are at risk of damaging their brains, according to the study, with results showing that they were three times more likely to have hippocampal atrophy than abstainers.

Hippocampal atrophy is a condition characterised by degeneration of the brain cells in the hippocampus, causing memory loss. It also has strong links to amnesia, hippocampal sclerosis, dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

According to the Department of Health, in Australia, one standard drink is any drink containing 10 grams of alcohol. One standard drink always contains the same amount of alcohol regardless of container size or alcohol type- beerwine, or spirit.

Moderate drinkers—those who consumed between 14-21 units of alcohol per week— were at risk of damage to their brains and were three times more likely to have hippocampal atrophy than abstainers.

Researchers based at the University of Oxford and University College London examined data gathered from a cohort of 550 healthy men and women over a period of 30 years. They collated the participants’ weekly alcohol intake and carried out brain function tests at regular intervals.

The study result's produced an interesting outcome, showing that participants who consumed higher amounts of alcohol (over 30 units per week) were associated with a higher risk of hippocampal atrophy— a form of brain damage that affects memory and spatial navigation.

Heavier drinking was also associated with poorer white matter integrity —which is critical for efficient cognitive functioning and related to a faster decline in language fluency— shown in this study, how many words beginning with the same letter someone could come up with in one minute.

Although the researchers saw a specific cause and effect, they are still in doubt as to why moderate drinking has such an impact on the brain. 

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So, should moderate drinkers be concerned?

Accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, Alan Barclay, believes there’s no reason to panic over your glass of vino just yet.

“We don’t necessarily want everybody to stop drinking alcohol, I don’t think there’s enough strength in this study to support that,” Barclay tells SBS.

Barclay also insists that “more research is needed before we think about lowering our alcoholic intake guidelines".

In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council recommends no more than two standard drinks per day to reduce the “lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury”.

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In light of the new study, Barclay advises Australians to continue keeping track of their alcohol intake and be aware of standard drink sizes, because even if you consider yourself a moderate drinker, it can be easy to miscount your own consumption of grog.  

Using wine as an example, Barclay says: “The biggest problem is that wine glasses aren’t often in standard serves—a standard drink of wine is 100mL. So you just have to be conscious.”

A lot of people share a bottle of wine between two, for example. And that would be 3.5 standard drinks each.”

“Get a good idea in your head of what 100mL of wine looks like when you’re drinking so that you can try and stick within the limits.

"Being more informed and aware can help you stick within those guidelines.”

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