Various health systems have reported sharp rises in alcohol consumption since the start of the pandemic.
In moderation, drinking can be a great way to unwind after stressful situations, and some alcoholic beverages even offer their own benefits to cognitive and cardiovascular health. In excess, however, the exact inverse appears to be true.
The research literature suggests that a habitual drinker’s age may be determinative of how much damage binge drinking actually inflicts on them.
A new study published in the BMJ journal explores the parameters more directly. According to the authors, populations between conception and birth, mid-to-late teens (15-19 years old), and those 65 years of age and older endure the most neurological damage from heavy drinking.
“The maintenance of brain health is central to health and wellbeing across the lifespan. Evidence suggests three periods of dynamic brain changes that may be particularly sensitive to the neurotoxic effects of alcohol: gestation later adolescence, and older adulthood,” the authors wrote in the new paper. ” Highly prevalent patterns of alcohol use may cause harm during these sensitive periods, including low-level prenatal alcohol exposure, adolescent binge drinking, and low-to-moderate alcohol use in older adulthood. Although these patterns of alcohol exposure may be associated with less harm to individuals than sustained heavy drinking, the overall burden of harm in populations is likely to be large.”
The first stage identified by the researchers should come as no surprise (though10% of the global population drinks while pregnant), but the second stage subsumes an age-range historically fond of social drinking.
The authors went on to write that 20% of 15 to 19-year-old Europeans as well as teens residing in other affluent nations, sporadically engage in binge drinking.
In addition to adverse effects on brain volume and white matter development, underage drinking accounts for a sizeable portion of motor vehicle crashes, and suicidal ideation. These are often compounded, and in some ways encouraged, by University life.
“Alcohol consumption by underage college students is commonplace, although it varies from campus to campus and from person to person. Indeed, many college students, as well as some parents and administrators, accept alcohol use as a normal part of student life. Studies consistently indicate that about 80 percent of college students drink alcohol, about 40 percent engage in binge drinking, and about 20 percent engage in frequent episodic heavy consumption, which is bingeing three or more times over the past 2 weeks,” The John Hopkins School of Public Health reports.
For older drinkers, heavy drinking affects cognitive decline the most profoundly. Dementia-related illnesses are common enough as it is among this demographic, and the authors of the new study indicate that people 65 years of age and older are acutely sensitive to neurodegenerative effects associated with excessive alcohol consumption.
Compounds found in alcoholic beverages may even contribute to protein buildups and tangles linked to Alzheimer’s pathology.
It goes without saying that excessive alcohol consumption yields major adverse health effects for everyone over time, even if some cohorts are more susceptible than others.
“Population-based interventions such as guidelines on low-risk drinking, alcohol pricing policies, and lower drunk driving limits need to be accompanied by the development of training and care pathways that consider the human brain at risk throughout life,” the study authors write in a media release.