Scientists identify the 3 life stages when alcohol is most harmful to the brain

LONDON — Alcohol can be synonymous with fun and good times, or at least that’s what beer or liquor ads would have you believe. While it’s certainly fair to say drinking responsibly can foster a fun evening, alcohol consumption has been known to hurt brain health for decades. Now, researchers have identified the three points in life when the negative effects of alcohol use are most prominent.

Australian and British researchers say our brains may be most susceptible to alcohol during three “periods of dynamic change.” Those three periods are gestation (conception to birth), mid-to-late teens (15-19 years-old), and old age (65 and older). Of course, no one really has control over that first life stage. During gestation, babies are exposed to whatever their mother consumes.

Study authors say alcohol consumption during any of these three stages “could increase sensitivity to the effects of environmental exposures such as alcohol.” They recommend that harm prevention policies “take the long view.”

It’s supposedly common knowledge that it’s a bad idea for any pregnant woman to consume alcohol. Despite this, the study finds 10 percent of pregnant women globally may still indulge, particularly in European nations.

Alcohol’s harmful impact on the growing brain

Heavy alcohol use by an expecting mother can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in her child. This causes reductions in brain volume and poor cognition. Meanwhile, even sporadic to semi-regular alcohol use by a pregnant woman has strong links to worse psychological and behavioral outcomes for her child years down the line.

While America is unique in its 21+ drinking laws, most countries allow their citizens to start drinking legally far earlier. Twenty percent of 15 to 19 year-olds living in European and other high-income nations at least occasionally engage in binge drinking.

Prior research shows that binge drinking during this pivotal phase of adolescence is linked to less brain volume, poorer white matter development (very important for efficient brain functioning), and a range of cognitive functioning issues.

Seniors are not immune from the harms of drinking

Finally, older adults over 65 should think twice about that second or third glass of wine with dinner. Alcohol use disorder during this period can raise one’s risk of dementia considerably. Now, while alcohol use disorder isn’t exactly common among older adults, researchers also stress that even moderate alcohol consumption in adulthood can cause loss of brain volume.

On a concerning note, alcohol consumption is trending up in a number of different categories. Women are more likely than in decades past to drink just as much as men. Overall, researchers expect global rates of alcohol use to grow more and more in the future.

“Population based interventions such as guidelines on low risk drinking, alcohol pricing policies, and lower drunk driving limits need to be accompanied by the development of training and care pathways that consider the human brain at risk throughout life,” the study authors write in a media release.

The study is published in The BMJ.