Well-Being Longevity

‘Light-to-moderate’ drinking may carry risks to the brain, new study says

Story at a glance

  • Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed data from more than 36,000 adults and found the link between alcohol use and aging was scaled depending on the level of consumption.
  • They found the difference between consuming zero and four drinks was equivalent to more than 10 years of aging.
  • “It’s not linear,” study co-author Remi Daviet said. “It gets worse the more you drink.”

A new study shows light to moderate alcohol consumption could carry risks to the brain, including a reduction in brain volume.  

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed data from more than 36,000 adults and found the link between alcohol use and aging was scaled depending on the level of consumption. Adults aged 50 and over who consumed two units (a pint of beer or a glass of wine) per day showed brain changes equivalent to two years of aging.  

“These findings contrast with scientific and governmental guidelines on safe drinking limits,” said Henry Kranzler who directs the Penn Center for Studies of Addiction.  

“For example, although the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that women consume an average of no more than one drink per day, recommended limits for men are twice that, an amount that exceeds the consumption level associated in the study with decreased brain volume,” he added.  

Researchers said viewing 36,000 MRI scans from the U.K. Biobank, which holds genetic and medical information from half a million British middle-aged and older adults, enabled them to calculate gray and white matter in various regions of the brain.  

“Having this dataset is like having a microscope or a telescope with a more powerful lens,” Gideon Nave, a researcher from Penn’s Wharton School, said. “You get a better resolution and start seeing patterns and associations you couldn’t before.” 

The group controlled for age, height, handedness, sex, smoking status, socioeconomic status, genetic ancestry, and location, while also adjusting brain volume data for the size of a person’s head.  


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Volunteer participants from the biobank answered a range of survey questions to gauge their alcohol consumption from zero to four units per day. When grouped based on consumption, researchers noticed a corresponding reduction in brain matter with the amount of alcohol a person drank each day.  

“It’s not linear,” study co-author Remi Daviet said. “It gets worse the more you drink.” 

Researchers found the difference between consuming zero and four drinks was equivalent to more than 10 years of aging. 

“There is some evidence that the effect of drinking on the brain is exponential,” Daviet said. “So, one additional drink in a day could have more of an impact than any of the previous drinks that day. That means that cutting back on that final drink of the night might have a big effect in terms of brain aging.” 


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