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04 December 2020

Experts identify three key periods in a lifetime most susceptible to alcohol consumption

Researchers from the UK and Australia say evidence suggests that periods of dynamic brain changes may be particularly sensitive to harmful effects of alcohol.

alcohol bottles

The editorial, published today at The BMJ, states that harm prevention policies “must take the long view” and consider a lifetime perspective. The experts from King’s College London, the University of Sydney and University of New South Wales identified three key periods: gestation (from conception to birth), later adolescence (age 15-19), and older adulthood (age over 65).

The experts considered reports of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder caused by heavy alcohol consumption during pregnancy, which result in smaller brain volume and cognitive problems. Various data also suggest that low or moderate alcohol consumption is significantly associated with psychological or behavioural outcomes in infants.

In adolescence, the issue of binge drinking is associated with reduced brain volume, poorer white matter development (critical for efficient brain functioning), and deficits in a range of cognitive functions.

Recent studies have shown that alcohol use disorders in older individuals are one of the strongest risk factors for dementia compared to other known factors such as high blood pressure or smoking.

Alcohol has become increasingly recognised as a risk factor for brain damage in older people, even at low risk drinking levels. Although the impact of alcohol use on the brain is likely to be influenced by other factors such as cardiovascular disease, we need to develop a better understanding of the relationship between alcohol and brain health. With this in mind, we are pleased to say that we are now exploring this within the PROTECT study of dementia prevention at King's College London

Dr Tony Rao, Visiting Lecturer in Old Age Psychiatry and one of the authors of the editorial

Taking into consideration that global alcohol consumption is predicted to rise in the future, the authors call for policies to consider harm reduction at all ages. In the editorial, they write, 'Population based interventions such as guidelines on low risk drinking, alcohol pricing policies, and lower drink driving limits need to be accompanied by the development of training and care pathways that consider the human brain at risk throughout life.'

Drinking linked to a decline in brain health from cradle to grave: Harm prevention policies must take the long view, say experts – Mewton et al is published today in The BMJ.

DOI: 10.1136/bmj.m4691

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