Re­searchers warn al­co­hol’s health ben­e­fits are du­bi­ous

Even mod­er­ate use can lead to brain dam­age

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY LAURA KELLY

While a raft of stud­ies link mod­er­ate drink­ing with var­i­ous health ben­e­fits, a noted Bri­tish re­searcher warns that such find­ings must be viewed in con­text of the stud­ies’ lim­i­ta­tions.

Anya Topi­wala, a clin­i­cal lec­turer in old age psy­chi­a­try at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford, is the lead au­thor of a re­cently pub­lished study on the dele­te­ri­ous ef­fects of al­co­hol on the brain. The study, which was pub­lished in June in The Bri­tish Med­i­cal Jour­nal, found that even mod­er­ate con­sump­tion of al­co­hol can cause brain dam­age.

In an in­ter­view with The Washington Times, Dr. Topi­wala urged cau­tion to­ward stud­ies re­port­ing health ben­e­fits of mod­er­ate drink­ing, say­ing the gen­eral pub­lic must pay at­ten­tion to those stud­ies’ lim­i­ta­tions be­fore ac­cept­ing their re­sults.

For in­stance, a re­cently pub­lished Dan­ish study eval­u­ated more than 70,000 peo­ple over four years to ex­plore how al­co­hol con­sump­tion re­lates to di­a­betes risk. The Dan­ish re­searchers con­cluded that three or four drinks per week were associated with the low­est risk of di­a­betes in their study’s par­tic­i­pants, but they did not find that mod­er­ate drink­ing pre­vents the dis­ease, she said.

“The ev­i­dence for pro­tec­tive ef­fect on car­dio­vas­cu­lar health has been stronger than on the brain,” Dr. Topi­wala said, “but even there — with some of the more re­cent, bet­ter done stud­ies — they haven’t found the pro­tec­tive ef­fect.”

Other lim­i­ta­tions in­clude short time spans for the re­search: In an­other study pur­port­ing to show al­co­hol con­sump­tion’s ben­e­fits in mem­ory re­ten­tion, the ex­per­i­ment took place over 48 hours, she said. In that study, par­tic­i­pants did a bet­ter job on a mem­ory re­call test the day af­ter drink­ing than they had per­formed be­fore they started drink­ing.

In ad­di­tion, con­found­ing fac­tors like ed­u­ca­tion or so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus can ac­count for sub­jects be­ing con­scious of tak­ing care of their health over­all, Dr. Topi­wala said.

An­other prob­lem re­searchers face is study par­tic­i­pants self-re­port­ing their al­co­hol con­sump­tion, par­tic­u­larly if al­co­hol con­sump­tion or other health prob­lems al­ready have af­fected one’s mem­ory, she said.

Dr. Topi­wala ad­mit­ted that it’s dif­fi­cult to over­come some of these lim­i­ta­tions even in her own re­search. In her most re­cently pub­lished study, she and her team eval­u­ated more than 500 peo­ple over 30 years — start­ing in midlife — and fo­cused on brain-imag­ing scans to eval­u­ate any dam­aged parts that could be a re­sult of al­co­hol con­sump­tion.

In de­cid­ing to em­bark on her study, Dr. Topi­wala said she felt ex­ist­ing ev­i­dence on the neg­a­tive ef­fects of al­co­hol on the brain wasn’t strong enough.

“There were only a few stud­ies that used brain imag­ing, and they were quite small,” she said. “There were some lim­i­ta­tions to their meth­ods … and the re­sults were quite con­flict­ing. So we thought it was kind of an unan­swered ques­tion still.”

To ac­count for some of the lim­i­ta­tions al­ready noted, the re­searchers had their sub­jects up­date their re­ported al­co­hol con­sump­tion rou­tinely over a pe­riod of every five years and rou­tinely checked the sub­jects’ cog­ni­tive per­for­mance.

Among the data, the re­searchers found that light drinkers — those who con­sume less than seven units of al­co­hol a week — had no pro­tec­tive health ef­fects and even showed signs of dam­age to the hip­pocam­pus, the area of the brain associated with mem­ory.

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