According to researchers from Chiba University in Japan, drinking alcohol contributes to shrinkage of the frontal lobe, the center for emotions, planning and other higher behavior, particularly as individuals get older. Studies have shown that this area is highly susceptible to alcoholic brain damage.
To examine whether alcohol had an effect on the brains of non-alcoholics, researchers measured the frontal lobe volumes of more than 1,400 individuals ranging in age from their 30s to 60s using a scanning technique called MRI.
Older individuals were nearly three times more likely to show brain shrinkage in this region than individuals in their 30s. The investigators found that the frontal lobe had shrunk in less than 8% of individuals between 30 and 40 years old, compared with nearly 16% of those in their 40s and 38% of those in their 50s. About 61% of people in their 60s had shrunken frontal lobes.
Heavy drinkers were nearly twice as likely to experience brain shrinkage as people who did not drink alcohol, and moderate consumption did not appear to have any effect on the brain. For people aged 30 to 50, heavy drinking doubled the risk that the volume of the brain's frontal lobe would decrease.
The good news is that alcoholic brain damage is partly reversible. Individuals who give up the bottle can recover brain volume and boost blood flow.
Light to moderate alcohol consumption seemed not to affect brain volume, whereas heavy alcohol consumption might exaggerate brain shrinkage in the non-alcoholic middle aged population. The researchers estimate that aging accounts for about 30% of brain shrinkage and heavy alcohol consumption for about 10%.
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