Drinking a glass of wine (or any type of alcoholic beverage) with dinner or as a way to wind down at the end of the day may not have as many health benefits as you think.
In fact, a recent study published in PLOS Medicine points out that consuming just one or two glasses of wine daily could lead to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“Higher alcohol intake was associated with higher brain iron. Higher brain iron in turn was linked to worse cognitive performance,” said Anya Topiwala, MA, MBMCh, MRCPsych, lead author of the study and a consultant psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford.
Topiwala and her colleagues examined around 21,000 people from the UK Biobank in the largest study to date to examine moderate alcohol consumption and iron accumulation. Participants were 40 to 69 in age and self-reported their own alcohol consumption. Their brains were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
How is alcohol consumption linked to brain function?
According to Topiwala, alcohol consumption above seven units – equivalent to two large glasses of wine per week – was associated with higher iron in the basal ganglia, a group of structures within the brain that’s responsible for motor movements, eye movement, cognition, procedural learning, emotion and more.
“Very high levels of iron in the brain are definitely bad; we see this in rare genetic conditions,” she said. “Higher brain iron has also been noted in aging and certain neurocognitive conditions. It is linked to worse cognition.”
She noted that while drinking was linked to higher brain iron, which has also been observed in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, these conditions were not something the researchers specifically looked at in this study.
In general, alcohol consumption can interfere with the brain’s communication pathways and can make it harder for areas of the brain that control balance, memory, speech and judgment to function properly.
“Even low consumption of alcohol can have immediate effects on reaction time and increase the risk of falls” in older adults, said Doug Eliason, DO, vice president of clinical affairs at P3 Health Partners.
The Alzheimer’s Society also reports alcohol consumption, especially in excess, can cause brain damage that may lead to Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.
Do certain alcoholic drinks lead to more levels of iron in the brain?
Topiwala and her colleagues found no evidence that drinking wine versus beer or spirits made a difference in brain health. The amount of alcohol rather than the type of alcoholic beverage appeared more important.
How much alcohol is considered unsafe for brain health?
While previous research has suggested occasional drinking could offer some health benefits – such as lowering the risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke – as well as lowering stress and anxiety – Topiwala said newer studies are suggesting something different.
“Earlier studies purported protective effects; however, more recently a number of studies (including ours) have reported harmful associations with the brain, suggesting the older studies were ‘confounded,’” she explained. “Other factors like socioeconomic status or income in moderate drinkers could have been obscuring the true relationships.”
In terms of how much alcohol is considered to be unsafe for brain health, Topiwala and Eliason said more studies are needed to confirm specific levels or amounts.
“In our study, we found drinking greater than seven units per week was associated with higher brain iron,” she said. However, “it is not clear whether any level is safe for the brain.”
Eliason added because low alcohol consumption was not evaluated for effects on cognitive function in this study, “it is hard to say that there are safe levels of alcohol to consume as we age.”
What does this mean for caregivers and seniors?
With these findings in mind, Topiwala said if you want to keep your brain as healthy as possible and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative disease, she recommends you consider reducing your alcohol intake and avoid binge drinking.
Eliason also said patients over 65 should continue to get annual wellness screenings completed each year. These exams can help your primary care provider assess for early signs of Alzheimer’s disease and implement interventions to decrease the progression of the disease.
Alternatives to alcohol when you need to unwind
Before reaching for that bottle of wine or can of beer in the kitchen, other non-alcoholic alternatives may be a healthier choice:
- Practice meditation or breathing techniques.
- Engage in light exercise (such as going on a walk, stretching or yoga).
- Take a bath (this can be paired with candles, bath bombs and relaxing bath oils).
- Read a book or magazine.
- Hangout with a family member, friend or group.
- Try nonalcoholic drinks like teas or mocktails.