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  • Writer's pictureTanisse Epp

The Red Wine Controversy: Does A Glass A Day Really Keep the Doctor Away?

The notion that moderate amounts of alcohol can provide health benefits swept the nation, with headlines shouting, “Red Wines ‘Magical’ Properties…” and “Red Wine Health Benefits – Why you should drink red wine!”. These headlines have contributed to the compounding acceptance of alcohol in Western culture and perpetuated the idea that alcohol can be beneficial. The headlines stemmed from studies showing low and moderate amounts of alcohol could have potential health benefits, including reduced risk of dementia and cardiovascular disease (1,2). Since then, a meta-analysis has challenged these findings showing that, while there are potential benefits of moderate alcohol use, these benefits are vastly outnumbered by the overwhelming increased risk for other health conditions such as tuberculosis, pancreatitis, cirrhosis and cancers (particularly lip and oral cavity cancers) (3). This meta-analysis also weighted the risk of all the potential associated harms and the different levels of alcohol consumption related to these harms and reported that the level of alcohol consumption that minimized overall risks to health was zero alcoholic drinks per day (3). This meta-analysis was completed in 2018, yet the idea that low to moderate amounts of alcohol has health benefits persists.

Since then, research has been interested in identifying the effects (both bad and good) of low to moderate amounts of alcohol consumption. A recent study by Angebrandt and colleagues investigates a unique measure of the impact of alcohol on our health by identifying how alcohol affects the brain’s ageing process (4).

Brain ageing is not a new concept. For years researchers have been working toward identifying how chronic alcohol consumption affects the premature ageing of the brain. Consistently, this research has shown that chronic alcohol use facilitates accelerated aging of the brain leading to significant neural cell death (5–8). Research has been able to quantify how many years the brain has aged by comparing it to individuals who are the same age and without a history of chronic alcohol consumption or other existing conditions. For instance, a study had shown that individuals with alcohol use disorder have a brain age of 11.7 years older than their counterparts (6). Brain age has been thus used as a marker of brain health not only within alcohol use but also within schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, multiple sclerosis, cognitive impairments, dementia, Alzheimer's disease, and cigarette smoking (4). While brain age has been investigated within chronic alcohol use, Angebrandt et al. are one of the first to determine whether low and moderate alcohol consumption accelerates brain ageing (4).

What did this study find?

Angebrandt and colleagues found that low and moderate alcohol consumption (approximately two and seven drinks a week, respectively) caused significantly accelerated brain ageing (4). They found that the brain age increased by five days per drink within a 90-day period (4). This result suggests that even low levels of alcohol have significant effects on the brain’s health and are consistent with chronic alcohol use, not independent as previously believed.

What didn't the study find?

While this result can have major implications on our views of alcohol and casual drinking culture, it is necessary to acknowledge that these results should be viewed not as the be-all-end-all but as a small part of the bigger picture, similar to us acknowledging that red wine may provide benefits such as decreasing the risk of dementia and cardiovascular disease while increasing other health risks.

This study has found that with each drink consumed within 90 days, the brain ageing process accelerates by approximately five days per drink (4). It is important to acknowledge that neural cell death occurs all the time and is a natural process in brain development and maintenance. Neural loss can become an issue when the loss becomes associated with deficits in cognitive and behavioural functioning. The authors of this study acknowledge that changes in cognitive or behavioural function were not assessed (4). Thus, the results should be taken with caution, not oversimplifying the meaning of this accelerated brain ageing. Furthermore, it is unclear how long these changes in the brain occur. For instance, a study on individuals with chronic alcohol use disorder found that the brain was able to partially recover within the first two weeks of abstinence (9). Therefore, it is unclear whether these effects are long-lasting or acute.

Additionally, the authors note that the measure of alcohol consumption is short-term (over 90 days) and does not account for the total amount of alcohol consumed over a lifetime (4). Nor does it consider different patterns of alcohol consumption during a lifetime (4). Concerning the result of the study, the findings that each drink accelerated the brain age by five days within 90 days only accounts for a snapshot in time and may not accumulate over time. This accelerated brain aging might be the effect over a lifetime or within a 90-day period, but more research is needed to determine its impact.

What should we take away from this study?

As humans, we prefer clear-cut answers, and unfortunately, science is not this way. Historically the communication of research in the media and even the results of this study show us that science is indeed complicated, providing us with information that should be considered among a whole host of other details, and these pieces of information are subject to change over time. So, while red wine may help with cardiovascular disease and dementia, it may also increase your risk for tuberculosis, pancreatitis, cirrhosis, cancers, and accelerated brain ageing, even in low quantities. Like most things online, it is crucial to question what you are reading before accepting the information wholeheartedly.

Blog by Tanisse Teale

Image provided by Pixabay




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