New Research Suggests That Moderate Drinking Could Be Worse For You Than Previously Thought

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cautions that excessive alcohol use can impact both our short-term and long-term health. Defined as drinking more than four or five drinks at a single time, excessive alcohol use can increase one's risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, liver disease, cancer, increased blood pressure, and lowered immunity. However, a new study has found that even moderate levels of drinking may negatively impact our health in more significant ways than expected.

Published in the scientific journal, PLOS Medicine, researchers found a relationship between moderate levels of alcohol consumption and increases of iron levels in brain regions that play a role in procedural learning, eye and motor movements, emotion, and cognition (via Healthline). As written in the research, this large-scale study is thought to be the first of its kind regarding how levels of iron may be influenced by the degree of alcohol consumption. Furthermore, the study showed that higher levels of iron in the brain related to alcohol consumption may negatively impact cognitive function.

Examining more than 20,000 participants in the U.K. between the ages of 40 and 69, participants were asked about their drinking habits and were to self-identify as current, never, or previous drinkers, according to the study. Additional survey data revealed the average alcohol intake on a weekly basis, amongst those who marked themselves as current drinkers, was 17.7 units. Healthline points out that's roughly the same amount as 7.5 cans of beer or six sizable glasses of wine.

Moderate weekly alcohol consumption may increase one's risk of cognitive decline

In the recent study, subsequent testing involved MRI scans to assess the participant's levels of iron in the body. Card games, and puzzles, among other task-based games, were implemented to measure participants' cognitive and executive function. The findings revealed that consuming more than seven units of alcohol weekly (about the same amount as two large glasses of wine) was associated with higher levels of iron in the brain (per Healthline). In turn, participants with greater amounts of iron in the brain performed worse on cognitive tests. However, this was not the case for those who drank lesser amounts of alcohol each week. "We found no evidence of harm at drinking less than seven units a week," lead study author Anya Topiwala told Healthline. Participants who marked themselves as never drinkers had the least amounts of iron in the brain, according to the research. 

An accumulation of iron in the body has been shown to potentially play a role in the development of Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease (via Healthline). As a result, reducing alcohol consumption, as well as implementing measures to improve nutrition or supplementation, may be helpful not just for heavy drinkers, but for moderate drinkers as well in order to reduce their risk for cognitive decline (per the study).