Your Brain on Alcohol: The Long-Term Effects of Heavy Drinking

alcohol and brain

There’s no denying that alcohol use is prevalent in today’s culture. From having a few beers after work to going out for weekend parties or a nightly glass of wine before bed, many people have social and personal rituals surrounding or including the use of alcohol. It’s so deeply ingrained that people often don’t think much about how much they consume until they realize it’s becoming a problem or it begins to interfere with their daily lives.

While occasional use of alcohol isn’t likely to cause lasting harm, there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. It’s considered a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer alongside other substances and chemicals like tobacco, asbestos and radiation. Drinking moderately is often thought of as being protective of one’s health, but there will always be risks associated with any amount of alcohol use.

Despite this, nearly 70% of adults 18 and older report that they have consumed alcohol within the past year, according to a 2021 study. Around 30% of American adults are considered excessive drinkers. Heavy drinking can be detrimental to physical and emotional health, causing a myriad of problems.

What’s Considered Heavy Drinking?

Heavy drinking is a subsection of excessive drinking. Excessive drinkers may be binge drinkers, heavy drinkers, those who drink during pregnancy or anyone who drinks under the age of 21. It accounts for about 10% of the population. Only about 3.5% have alcohol use disorder, but the majority of them are heavy drinkers.

Before talking about what heavy drinking looks like, it’s important to note that alcohol content determines how many drinks an actual drink may count as. Generally speaking, one drink is:

  • 1 ounce of liquor
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 12 ounces of beer

A drink with three ounces of liquor, therefore, would be the equivalent of three drinks, even if it’s in one cup. Someone drinking several shots of liquor may not look like as heavy a drinker as someone who drinks three or four beers, even though it’s very possible the one drinking liquor consumed more alcohol overall.

To be a heavy drinker, men and women need to consume different amounts. Women require substantially less alcohol for this classification, with more than eight drinks per week being considered heavy. Men who consume more than 15 drinks in a week are considered heavy drinkers.

The Effects of Long-Term Heavy Drinking on the Brain

Most people know that alcohol use impairs the brain. Slurring, experiencing reduced coordination and short-term memory impairments are common effects of drinking, especially in those who have more than one. It’s one of the biggest reasons why drinking and driving is so dangerous. However, other negative effects of drinking aren’t so short-lived. Long-term, heavy drinking can cause brain damage and impairments, and it’s possible to develop alcohol use disorder.

A study out of the University of Oxford followed 424 men and 103 women participating in a 10,000-person study to investigate the relationship between lifestyle and health in Britain over the course of 30 years. Reviewing personal reports about alcohol consumption, results from tests measuring memory, verbal skills and reasoning abilities, and MRI results, shrinkage in the hippocampus correlated with drinking patterns. Those who ingested four or more drinks daily were nearly six times more likely to have hippocampus shrinkage compared to non-drinkers.

A similar 2001 study revealed similar results. Dr. Kenneth J. Mukamal, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, followed nearly 3,400 men and women in a heart study who also reported alcohol use and underwent MRI scans. The team found that as alcohol consumption increased, brain volume shrank proportionately. However, the reasoning for this is unclear. Dr. Mukamal elaborates that while there is atrophy, it’s unclear whether it’s due to the loss of brain cells or because fluids have shifted in the brain, especially because those who stop drinking show major improvements in brain volume within weeks of sobriety. If the brain cells died as a result of alcohol use, they wouldn’t grow back.

Heavy drinkers can experience several concerning side effects, some of which can be permanent. Because of the atrophying effect on the brain, heavy drinkers may find they experience cognitive impairment that makes it harder to learn, make rational decisions or retain information. The shrinkage of the brain can also increase the risk of developing dementia and other cognitive disorders.

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Does Age Matter When Drinking Heavily?

Typically, the earlier someone begins drinking heavily, the more significant the brain damage is likely to be. Younger brains are still developing, with development finishing in the mid-to-late 20s. The final part of brain development is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for reasoning abilities and making good decisions. Those who begin drinking heavily in their teens or early 20s, therefore, are more likely to experience cognitive impairments related to their alcohol use, as the consumption can interfere with development. That doesn’t mean it’s safe to start drinking after the brain has fully developed either. Drinking heavily is unhealthy and should be avoided.

If you are a heavy drinker or have started drinking from a young age, the good news is that it’s never too late to stop. The effects of drinking can be mitigated and you can prevent brain damage from worsening with treatment. Alcohol is an addictive substance, and many heavy drinkers struggle with quitting on their own, especially if they have drunk for several years. Seeking treatment through rehab centers and with trained psychologists who are well-versed in addiction and substance abuse can help increase your chances of successfully withdrawing and quitting alcohol.

Mayflower Recovery Is Dedicated to Your Health, Wellness and Sobriety

Alcohol use disorder is common among heavy drinkers, but thankfully, it’s also possible to treat. Likewise, the damage alcohol does to the body may be reversible by quitting use. At Mayflower Recovery, we recognize that quitting is often easier said than done, especially in a society that has casualized alcohol use. Triggers and reminders can be plentiful, making the journey to wellness and sobriety more difficult. Pairing that with the fact that alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous if not overseen by a medical professional, it can feel daunting to take the plunge into sobriety.

Located in the Boston area, Mayflower Recovery offers a new, state-of-the-art residential drug and alcohol recovery center. Here, you can rest assured that the expert staff, highly trained in managing addiction treatment, can help with the detox process. This is often one of the first steps people take in treatment, allowing those in need of assistance a chance to begin their sober journey safely and judgment-free.

When you contact Mayflower Recovery, you are not alone. You can escape the cycle of substance abuse and reclaim your health, wellness and most importantly, happiness. If you’re ready for help, contact us at (978) 737-7937 to discuss your unique situation. We can verify your insurance and schedule your first appointment. From there, all you have to do is follow your treatment plan and focus on recovery.

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