This post was originally published on January 14, 2016.
It baffles me that nobody wants to acknowledge the potentially harmful impact that regular, excessive drinking has on our long-term health. Quite the contrary, people love to promote the ole, “But red wine is good for you! It’s got flavonoids!” argument. I don’t think the docs are recommending pounding a bottle of Merlot each night as the cure for heart disease. So when just before the holidays, The Wall Street Journal published a story about how chronic alcohol abuse causes brain damage that is not often diagnosed, I felt a little vindicated (and proud of myself for breaking at least one unhealthy habit).
Alzheimer’s or Booze Brain?
According to the author, the symptoms of alcohol’s detriment to the brain’s structure are very similar to what a lot of people deem the symptoms of old age, dementia or even Alzheimer’s. Hence, why booze brain (that’s what I’m calling it, cool?) is not always easily detected. Basically, the grey matter, which starts to slip for all of us as we age, slips even faster the more we drink. Grey matter, to remind you since I assume you’re not a brain doctor, takes care of social skills, decision-making, memories and our learning abilities. As Edith Sullivan, a professor from Stanford who studies the consequences of alcohol use abuse, told the author, alcohol’s long term side effect can basically include “accelerated aging.” Whelp, does anyone need to hear anything else? Entire programs could be built around that fact to deter people from drinking. Ain’t nobody wantin’ to get too old, too soon these days.
Additionally, the article states,”Long-term alcohol abuse also changes how the brain regulates emotion and anxiety and disrupts sleep systems, creating wide-ranging effects on the body.” Doctors are calling it “alcohol-induced neurocognitive disorder” or “alcohol-related dementia.” I’m calling it, “I guess the attempt to numb everything and check out of reality is working a little too well” disease.
But How Much Is Too Much?
As the WSJ and medical community at large both point out, we can’t just make a broad generalization about how drinking causes brain damage in the long haul (even though I totally did that in the title of this piece) because so many factors come into play with alcohol’s effect on our body. Out of the gate, you’ve got to take into consideration the role of genetics. A guy who pickles himself with a pint of Jack Daniel’s every day for forty years might still outlive or show less brain impairment than a woman who maintains a regular but maybe not quite as frequent wine slugging routine. The age at which someone starts heavily drinking can play a role, too. Teens hitting your parent’s liquor cabinet, take heed.
There is also a significant amount of debate as to what constitutes “binge drinking” depending on a person’s age and sex. According to The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, men can have up to 14 drinks per week (no more than 4 on a single day) or women can have no more than 7 per week (or no more than 3 in a single day) and still stay in the non-health-risk zone. But, again, this number is not set in stone. That seems like a lot to me and contradicts other findings I’ve seen about this number, namely from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But maybe that’s my 21 months of not touching the stuff talking.
The Attempt to Numb Pain Ultimately Causes More Pain
The article also discusses heavy alcohol usage’s effect on the emotional sect of our brain—the amygdala. It messes with our frontal cortex’s ability to regulate the amygdala, hence the existence of beer tears and alcohol-induced rage (I assume). What’s more, studies show that heavy drinkers start to remain in chronic states of anxiety and fear (I will readily attest to this fact). As most alcoholics eventually learn if they get sober, drinking more to self soothe the anxiety and fear only exacerbate it.
Again, though, so much of this depends on each individual, and of course whether he or she is suffering from alcoholism. I do think the younger someone can start to reign it in, the better. And by “reign it in,” I don’t mean “get sober.” I just mean be aware that if you want to keep your memory sharp, your emotional maturity in check and still be able to work a crossword puzzle at 65 the way you could at 35, it might be a good idea to regulate your booze intake.