Heavy Social Drinking Damages the Brain

April 15, 2004

April 15, 2004

People who head out at the end of the day with colleagues and friends to chat over several rounds of drinks may be doing long-term damage to their brains, a new study finds. The result could mean memory problems, impaired thinking, and loss of other essential mental skills.

“Socially functioning heavy drinkers often do not recognize that their level of drinking constitutes a problem that warrants treatment,” the researchers, from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and the University of California in San Francisco report.

In the study, the researchers recruited people who considered themselves social drinkers. Heavy drinkers included men who drank on average more than 100 drinks a month, and women who drank more than 80. That translates to three or so drinks a night, or more drinking on weekends. A drink is generally defined as a glass of wine or a can or bottle of beer, or one serving of spirits.

The study participants were given memory and thinking tests, as well as brain scans and tests to measure levels of various brain chemicals important for memory and learning. The social drinkers showed some of the same kinds of brain damage that is known to occur in very heavy drinkers who need to be hospitalized, even though the social drinkers did not consider themselves to be alcoholics.

A drink or two a day is recognized by many as an effective way to ease stress. Some studies even suggest that antioxidants and other substances in wine and other beverages may boost longevity and heart health and possibly even help to ward off serious ailments like Alzheimer’s disease.

Heavy alcohol use, on the other hand, is known to damage the liver and other organs, including the brain. In some cases, heavy drinking can lead to permanent memory problems that resemble those of Alzheimer’s.

Any damage to the brainwhether it’s due to alcohol, poor blood flow, a stroke, or other reasons is not a good thing. Alcohol damage may be particularly important for those concerned about ailments like Alzheimer’s, since a diminished brain capacity may contribute to memory problems and speed the onset of mental decline, research suggests.

The bottom line: If you drink, do so in moderation. That means two drinks a day tops for younger men, and just a drink a day for women and older people.

The study appeared in the April 2004 issue of Alcholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, the official journal of the Research Society on Alcholism.

By www.ALZinfo.org. The Alzheimer’s Research Site.  Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.


Meyerhoff D, Martin P, et al: Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, April 2004.


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