The People's Perspective on Medicine

Is Too Much Alcohol Bad for the Brain?

A little alcohol may help you live longer but will too much alcohol lead to brain damage and dementia? French researchers say yes!
Older adult female offering a bottle of wine and glass sitting alone

The headlines have recently proclaimed that a little alcohol can improve longevity. The emphasis is on a little. Too much alcohol can increase the risk for cognitive decline. That’s because there are ingredients in alcohol that are problematic for brain tissue. In addition, the body metabolizes ethanol (aka ethyl alcohol or drinking alcohol) to acetaldehyde, a chemical that is considered a neurotoxin. Too much alcohol has been linked to “alcoholic brain damage” (Metabolic Brain Disease, March, 1995).

Too Much Alcohol and Dementia:

A French study of more than a million adults reveals that excessive alcohol use is associated with early dementia (Lancet Public Health, Feb. 20, 2018). More than 16 percent of the men with a diagnosis of dementia also had alcohol use disorder.

That was also true for 4% of the women. Discharged patients without dementia were only half as likely to be alcoholics.

Heavy alcohol use leads to brain injury over time. In addition to damaging neuronal tissue directly, alcohol abuse also affects blood vessels and can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Too Much Alcohol and Thiamine Deficiency:

Researchers have known for a long time that too much alcohol can deplete the body of a key B vitamin called thiamine (vitamin B1). A review of this effect in the journal Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy (Jan. 25, 2013) noted:

“Neuropathological and imaging studies suggest that excessive and prolonged use of alcohol may lead to structural and functional damage that is permanent in nature; however, there is debate about the relative contributions of the direct toxic effect of alcohol (neurotoxicity hypothesis), and the impact of thiamine deficiency, to lasting damage.”

It is entirely possible that too much alcohol directly impacts the brain in a negative way. In addition, alcohol impairs thiamine metabolism in the body. Too little of this nutrient can also cause neurotoxicity.

How Much is Too Much Alcohol?

Researchers are not in complete agreement about this. Some studies suggest that 10 drinks a week are problematic. Others consider 5 to 6 drinks a day excessive. We suspect that the truth lies somewhere in between. Once someone makes alcohol a regular part of each day and becomes uncomfortable without at least two drinks, we worry.

The People’s Pharmacy Perspective:

While a little alcohol may prolong life, who wants to live longer if the mind is gone? The results of the 90+ study (here is a link) included the discovery that “Over 40% of people aged 90 and older suffer from dementia.” While a single glass of wine or a cocktail should not lead to alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD), too many glasses could clearly increase the risk for dementia.

Want to cut back on booze? Here is a recent article you may find of interest. Check out the comments at the bottom for reader perspectives.

Naltrexone for Alcohol Problem: Will It Work?

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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I had two sisters die from Alzheimers, both in their 80’s. Both we just slightly overweight, ate sensibly, no alcohol or tobacco, and walked 30-60 minutes daily.

I’m 85, diabetic and have some irritating short-term memory lapses, which do not hinder my activities. I read everything concerning the Big A. I believe my sisters probably could not have avoided the disease, even though our parents and four other siblings were not affected.

I also feel that a remedy will be discovered or developed in the not-too-distant future, so I’m cautiously optimistic. Diet, exercise, and prayer will suffice until then.

There are millions of Americans that are into drinking wine and therefore by the above standards should have mental issues or signs of mental issues. I’m not aware of a single person where this is true. All my ancestors were big drinkers and showed no signs of mental issues. Of course they were all hard workers so maybe that offset the potential effects on the brain due to drinking. I also know of several alcoholics who drink heavily every day so by today’s thinking they all should have liver and brain problems. I don’t see this even though the amounts of alcohol consumed by these individuals is huge. When you look at the drinking in countries like France, Germany, and Italy you would think they would have major mental issues. I’m not aware that they are any better or worse off than we are. We need more technical data.

You have to be careful about the way you form a question. “Is too much……” Well, too much is too much, right? You are implying the right answer in the question. Directing an answer, in fact.

I drink 2 mugs of coffee each morning and 2 glasses of red wine most evenings and at 79 seem to be doing okay in the memory department.

My husband who never drank anything except Diet Pepsi developed Alzheimer’s at age 75.

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