The results of this research recently showed up on TV and in the newspapers. They even joked about it on Saturday Night Live. Here’s a brief summary.
The findings that garnered all the attention were:
- “even light-to-moderate drinking is associated with harm to the brain”.
- “reduced brain volume… begins at an average consumption level of less than one alcohol unit a day — the equivalent of about half a beer — and rises with each additional drink.”
- “People who drink heavily have alterations in brain structure and size that are associated with cognitive impairments.”
- “a few beers or glasses of wine a week — may also carry risks to the brain.”
- “in 50-year-olds, as average drinking… increases from one alcohol unit (about half a beer) a day to two units (a pint of beer or a glass of wine), [brain changes] are…equivalent to aging two years.”
Most of that came as a surprise to the public. After all, we live in a drinking culture. The government does provide us with guidelines for so-called ‘safe’ alcohol consumption. But as a researcher put it, “These findings contrast with scientific and governmental guidelines on safe drinking limits.” No kidding.
As for how the research was conducted: “The volunteer participants…responded to survey questions about their alcohol consumption levels, from complete abstention to an average of four or more alcohol units a day.” The principal advantage of this study over others was its sheer size – some 36,000 adults participated.
“Having this dataset is like having a microscope or a telescope with a more powerful lens… you get a better resolution and start seeing patterns and associations you couldn’t before.” That sums it up nicely. This is not just a different view, it’s a superior view. Harder to ignore.
What does it all mean? To put it simply, it appears that alcohol isn’t “good” for anybody — even in small amounts.
But as Kate McKinnon’s SNL character might put it, “We know dis.” In fact, stories like this, based on research, have shown up in the headlines for many years, coming and going with the news cycle. I’d be surprised if this time is any different.
Meanwhile, we’ve been busy drinking more as a nation than ever, prodded by the pandemic. The implications of that are striking. But not everyone is paying attention. We’re good at ignoring things.
Reminds me of a DWI class I spoke at some years ago. Someone asked about marijuana and cognitive impairment. I spoke briefly before another student raised his hand with an objection. “I smoked pot for years and it never hurt my intelligence.” His buddy in the next seat agreed. “Yeah, you were dumb before pot.” Laughter all round. Later on, another attendee suggested that perhaps pot just made you stupid enough that you could no longer recognize how stupid you’d become.
Not a single member of that class mentioned alcohol as a possible source of cognitive damage – in spite of the fact that they’d all been arrested for drinking-related offenses. I said as much and got another objection from someone else.
“But with alcohol, if you lay off it for a couple weeks, your brain heals up, right?” I think I just stared at him. “Not right?” Not right.
He reflected on this for a moment. “Oh well,” he said, finally, “it’s probably too late for me anyway. Might as well stick with the beer.”
Scare tactics don’t work too well when it comes to alcohol.