Alcohol has long been linked to the restricted development of babies prenatal, and the harmful effects of alcohol on brain health is compelling and are widely known. However, now experts have pinpointed three critical stages in life when excessive alcohol consumption can have its most detrimental side effects.

Demographic trends suggest that the effects of alcohol on brain health will become an increasing concern for health policymakers and medical professionals; for example, women are now just as likely to drink just as much as men. Furthermore, even this is being compounded by the current pandemic as many people have been binge drinking during the lockdowns, or to self-medicate themselves while experiencing depression.

Cradle to the grave: Drinking causes a decline in brain health

Australian and British researchers writing in The BMJ say that evidence suggests there are three critical periods of dynamic brain changes that are particularly sensitive to the corrosive effects of alcohol. The periods that were identified were: gestation (from conception to birth), late adolescence (15-19), and adulthood (over 65 years).

Current UK guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is that women should drink no more than 1 to 2 UK units once or twice a week, and in the UK research suggests that 41% of women drink while pregnant. Globally, around 10% of pregnant women drink while pregnant, with that percentage considerably higher in countries with a heavy drinking culture.
However, researchers said that data suggests that even low or moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy is significantly associated with comparatively poorer psychological and behavioural outcomes in children.

In terms of adolescents, more than 20% of European teenagers report that they occasionally binge drink. Although this rite of passage can have detrimental effects as the transition to binge drinking in adolescence research suggests is associated with reduced brain volume, deficits in cognitive functions, and poorer white matter development which is critical for effective brain functioning.

While for adults older than 65, alcohol use disorders were recently shown to be one of the most decisive modifiable risk factors for all types of dementia when compared to other risk factors. The authors pointed out that even moderate drinking is linked to small but significant loss of brain volume in midlife.

To address the excessive drinking especially in these populations, the authors of the research said that: ‘Population-based interventions such as guidelines on low-risk drinking, alcohol pricing policies, and lower drink driving limits need to be accompanied by the development of training and care pathways that consider the human brain at risk throughout life.’