(Washingtonpost.com) Nobody wants to think about their brain's shrinking. But our brains do so as we age.
They decrease in size by about 2 percent per decade; and the brains of drinkers may shrink more quickly, according to a study published Monday in the Archives of Neurology, a publication of the American Medical Association. Those who drank most saw the most shrinkage. Women's brains suffered more than men's, perhaps because women tend to be smaller than men and may metabolize alcohol differently.
The research team, led by Carol Ann Paul, an instructor in the neuroscience program at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., had hypothesized that low to moderate alcohol consumption might actually protect against brain shrinkage. No such luck. (For news about a possible way for older people to keep their brains sharp, see tomorrow's The Checkup entry.)
On the other hand, drinking didn't seem to accelerate the formation of white matter lesions on the brain, another phenomenon of aging that may contribute to cognitive decline. This research found no such effect.
Before you toss out your martini glass, it's important to note a few caveats. The study, which included 1,839 participants who'd had MRIs of their brains, wasn't designed to investigate what, if any, effect brain shrinkage has on actual brain function. And because the study relied on reviewing existing data (collected through the Framingham Offspring Study), it's impossible to establish a firm cause-and-effect relationship between alcohol consumption and brain shrinkage. The study's authors note that a prospective study is needed to prove that link exists.
Or, as they say in study-speak:
"These results were observed in cross-sectional data. Thus, we cannot relate alcohol consumption to decline in brain volume. Prospective analyses of this association would be important to establish the temporal relationship between alcohol consumption and brain volume."
The study adds to the mass of research related to alcohol's effects on health. At this point, it's hard to judge whether low to moderate consumption's possible ties to brain atrophy and certain cancers outweigh the cardiovascular benefits associated with such consumption. Expect more studies and more, possibly conflicting, findings.
For now, the only sensible way to proceed is to use common sense. If you don't drink, it's probably not prudent to start imbibing just for the heart-health benefits. If you do drink, stick to no more than one drink per day for women; men can have up to two. Obviously, don't drive or make important life decisions if you've been drinking. (Of course alcoholics, or those who are prone to alcoholism, should follow a whole different set of rules, as the stakes are different for them.)
And, in the end, if you do choose to have a drink now and then, take care to enjoy it. Isn't that what life is all about?
How do you juggle news about health benefits and risks posed by things you like to eat, drink, or engage in for fun? Are you easily swayed by a single study? Or do you rely more on your own sense of what's best for your body?