Moderate Alcohol Use Linked to Brain
Study also finds low to moderate alcohol use does not
reduce risk of stroke
By Tim Parsons
School of Public Health
A study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins
Bloomberg School of Public
Health and other institutions found a link between low
to moderate alcohol consumption and a decrease in the brain
size of middle-aged adults. Brain atrophy is associated
with impaired cognition and motor functions. The
researchers also found that low or moderate consumption did
not reduce the risk of stroke, which contradicts the
findings of some previous studies. The study is published
in the rapid access edition of Stroke: The Journal of
the American Heart Association.
"Previous studies conducted with older adults found an
association between heavy drinking, brain atrophy and an
increased risk for stroke. We studied a younger,
middle-aged population and found that low amounts of
alcohol consumption are also associated with decreases in
brain size," said Jingzhong Ding, lead author of the study
and a research associate in the
Epidemiology at the School of Public Health. "Our
findings do not support the hypothesis that low or moderate
alcohol intake offers any protection against cerebral
abnormalities or the risk of stroke in middle-aged
For the study, Ding and his colleagues used magnetic
resonance imaging to measure the brains of 1,909 men and
women, ages 55 and older. All were randomly selected from
the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study. The MRI was
used to access brain size and to detect infarcts and white
matter lesions, which are changes in the brain associated
with an increased risk for stroke. The researchers
categorized the participant's drinking habits as either
never drank, former drinker, occasional drinker (less than
one drink per week), low drinker (one to six drinks per
week) or moderate drinker (seven to 14 drinks per week).
The researchers found that as alcohol consumption
increased, the MRI detected increases in the ventricular
and sulcal areas of the brain, which are spaces that do not
contain brain tissue and an indication of brain atrophy.
However, they found no consistent association between
alcohol intake and the presence of infarctions or white
matter lesions. Former drinkers and moderate drinkers were
more likely to have infarctions compared to those who never
drank without adjusting for other factors. After adjusting
for such factors as smoking habits, body mass and income,
the researchers found no reduction or protection in
infarction associated with former drinkers or moderate
drinkers. In addition, they did not find an association
between alcohol intake and white matter lesions.
"Because MRI measures in the brain were only conducted
once during follow-up, a causal relationship between
alcohol intake and brain atrophy is difficult to
establish," Ding said. "The strength of the study lies in
the large population-based sample and the consistency of
the findings by gender and race."
The study, funded by the National Heart, Lung and
Blood Institute, was written by Jingzhong Ding, Marsha L.
Eigenbrodt, Thomas H. Mosley Jr., Richard Hutchinson,
Aaron R. Folsom, Tamara B. Harris and F. Javier Nieto.
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