Moderate drinking does more than just strain your liver. It can also cause a buildup of iron in the brain, which has been linked to future cognitive problems.
That’s the main finding from a group of researchers in the United Kingdom, who explored the relationship between drinking and brain iron levels. In the largest study of its kind, the scientists collected brain scans, alcohol consumption information and cognitive data from more than 20,000 people.
The moderate drinkers — those who consume six glasses of wine or about seven cans of beer a week — had indications of higher iron levels in the brain. More brain iron, in turn, is associated with worse performance on problem-solving or puzzle tasks.
Among the study participants, the higher iron levels were noted in brain regions that govern eye movement, emotions and muscle movement. Iron accumulation in some brain regions was also associated with diminished cognitive function.
Considering the prevalence of moderate drinking, researchers say the findings could potentially affect many people. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 15% of people in the United States engage in moderate drinking. CDC guidelines have held that even moderate drinking can raise the risk of some forms of cardiovascular disease and several types of cancers.
When it comes to drinking and health, there’s also a perception problem. Before the findings about drinking and brain iron were published, 55% percent of Americans who answered a 2018 Gallup poll believed drinking in moderation made no difference to their health.
But as the health evidence mounts, moderate imbibers might want to rethink that extra drink.