- New research indicates that moderate drinking is linked to higher iron levels in the brain.
- Higher iron levels, in turn, are associated with worse performance on cognitive testing.
- The study authors believe this might potentially show how alcohol contributes to cognitive decline.
- Reducing alcohol consumption may be an important way to prevent this decline.
According to a study appearing in the July 14, 2022 issue of the journal PLOS Medicine, drinking seven or more units of alcohol per week was associated with higher levels of iron in the brain.
Additionally, higher levels of iron in certain parts of the brain were linked to poorer results on cognitive tests.
The UK Chief Medical Officers’ Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines explain that seven units of alcohol are equivalent to about three 175-mL glasses of wine with a 14 percent alcohol content.
An intake of 7 to 14 units weekly is considered to be moderate drinking.
The study authors felt it was important to study the effects of alcohol on brain iron content because iron buildup in the brain has previously been linked to neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
They wanted to learn whether moderate alcohol consumption might potentially contribute to the cognitive decline associated with these conditions.
Lead author Anya Topiwala and her research team at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, included 20,965 people from the UK Biobank in their study.
The UK Biobank is a large, long-term study being conducted in the United Kingdom which seeks to learn how genes and environment contribute to the development of disease.
The average age of study participants was 55 years old. Nearly half (48.6 percent) were women.
Study participants self-reported their alcohol consumption via a touchscreen questionnaire, classifying themselves as being either current, never, or previous drinkers. Weekly alcohol consumption was calculated for current drinkers.
The average amount of alcohol consumed was about 18 units per week, which is roughly equivalent to about 7 1/2 cans of beer or 6 large glasses of wine, according to the study authors.
These individuals also had magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) performed on their brains. Additionally, nearly 7,000 of them had MRIs done on their livers. These scans were done in order to assess the amount of iron in these organs.
All study participants did testing to assess their cognitive and motor function.
The researchers found upon analysis that drinking more than seven units of alcohol per week was linked with greater amounts of iron in the basal ganglia.
This area of the brain is responsible for functions such as motor movements, procedural learning, eye movement, cognition, and emotion.
They further noted that higher iron levels in this region were linked to worse cognitive function.
“Potential implications are that this adds to the increasing evidence base that even small amounts of alcohol may damage the brain,” said Topawala. “Additionally, it offers insight into the way alcohol damages the brain — and we hope offers future avenues for studies to test whether intervening to lower iron might help avoid damage.”
Dr. Patricia E. Molina, Director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Center of Excellence at LSUHSC New Orleans and a member of the American Physiological Society, who was not a part of the study, said the basal ganglia is vulnerable to age-related changes. This study indicates that brain iron accumulation due to alcohol consumption might also cause cognitive decline.
“The results provide ideas for future studies to determine the contribution of iron concentrations to changes in brain function,” she added.
While this study’s findings are only preliminary and more research will be needed to tease out just what it all really means, there are things you can do in the meantime to reduce your risks from drinking alcohol.
Topiwala suggests that one way to reduce your risk is to reduce how much alcohol you are taking in.
“We found no evidence of harm at drinking less than seven units a week,” she noted, explaining that this would be less than two large glasses of wine per week.
Molina agrees, adding that you can either reduce the amount consumed or the days of alcohol consumption.
She further advises not drinking to the point of becoming intoxicated.
Also, drinking alcohol with a meal instead of alone can help reduce the risks associated with drinking in general.
Finally, she advises seeking treatment if you find yourself unable to stop or decrease the amount that you are drinking, or if your drinking is interfering with your responsibilities and daily life activities.