BU Today

Health & Wellness

Brain Pain

Heavy long-term drinking can shrink your brain.

Add a new item to the legion of bad effects caused by abuse of alcohol. Besides hangovers, headaches, and addiction, heavy drinking can also shrink your brain. A new study by the American Academy of Neurology, using data from the Framingham Offspring Study, has found that drinking large amounts of alcohol over many years can decrease brain volume.

Researchers looked at MRI scans of 1,839 people, age 34 to 88, who were descendants of participants in the Framingham Heart Study, an epidemiological study begun in 1948 by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and run by Boston University since 1971. Participants were classified in groups: nondrinkers, former drinkers, low drinkers (1 to 7 drinks per week), moderate drinkers (8 to 14 drinks per week), or high drinkers (more than 14 drinks per week).

The MRI scans showed that people who had more than 14 drinks a week averaged a 1.6 percent reduction in the ratio of brain volume to skull size compared to nondrinkers. Brain size decreased .25 percent on average for every increase in drinking category. The effects of heavy drinking on brain volume were slightly greater in women than men, with women in their 70s showing the largest negative impact.

“I think that the research underscores that moderation is key,” says David McBride, director of Student Health Services. “We’ve known for years of a variety of potential bad effects of alcohol if it is used in excess.”

The findings indicate the amount of alcohol that is unhealthy, McBride says. “The current recommendation that women should have no more than one drink per day if they choose to drink and men no more than two per day,” he says, “is based in real science.” McBride says that faculty and staff are more likely to heed the warning. “Students are very focused on the immediate, and not long-term, effects of their actions.”

Beth Grampetro, health and wellness educator for the Office of Residence Life, agrees that students don’t realize the impact their current behavior has on their long-term health.

“There is still a prevailing attitude, a culture around college drinking, that says that heavy episodic drinking during college is a normal rite of passage and that as long as they ‘grow out of it’ when they graduate, they’ll be fine,” Grampetro says. “A positive behavior change for students to adopt now would be drinking less and less often. In other words, have fewer drinks at a time and drink on fewer occasions.”

Meghan Noé can be reached at mdorney@bu.edu.