How Your Nightcap Could Be Aging Your Brain

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Conventional wisdom says that a drink or two after work isn’t bad for you—and might actually help you live longer and keep your heart healthy. But the reality is that the long-term health effects of alcohol are hard to tease out, and there’s lots of conflicting evidence. As more people opt in for dry January and explore alternatives to that glass of wine or weekend cocktail, evidence is emerging that alcohol might not be so great for the body. A new study from researchers at the University of Southern California falls into that category: Researchers found that daily alcohol consumption can increase brain aging and reduce cognitive functioning over time.

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According to Insider, USC researchers used an algorithm to determine the relative brain age over 17,000 MRI scans from a U.K. health database. First, they trained the algorithm by assessing 30 percent of the scans, then comparing the computer’s estimates with the patients’ actual age. Researchers were able to set the algorithm loose on the rest of the scans thereafter to determine their relative brain ages.

The researchers also combined the age data with the patients’ self-reported smoking and drinking habits. Using all this info, they found a strong correlation between increased brain age and daily drinking and smoking. In fact, those who drank daily or almost daily showed an average relative brain age 0.4 years older than those who never drank—or drank up to three to four times a week.

As you might imagine, an aged brain doesn’t perform as well. Although the actual effects vary from person to person, brain aging is associated with “structural changes, declined cognitive function, and increased risk of dementia,” the researchers write.

The study confirms previous reports that show a negative correlation between alcohol intake and brain health. But this one is especially notable because of its unique sample size.

“Back in the day we’d scan 20 or 40 subjects, if we were lucky, for neuroimaging studies,” Lucina Uddin, director of the Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience Division at the University of Miami, told Insider. “This is the biggest sample we’ve ever seen.”

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So how does this fit in with other research on the benefits of alcohol for things like heart health? We dove into the science around alcohol consumption and talked with experts in 2018, and found that alcohol is actually a mixed bag in terms of health. It can help improve blood flow, for example, but it can also mess up the electrical signaling that regulates your heartbeat. Check out the full article to read more of what the experts say, but one thing is clear: Always drink in moderation—because a glass of wine each night probably won’t make you healthier.

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