It’s often said that drinking alcohol kills brain cells. Is there any truth to this statement?
Anyone who’s seen a person who’s had “one too many” knows that alcohol affects the brain. Slurred speech, incoordination, and saying inappropriate things all are reminders of alcohol’s impact on brain function. It’s sometimes said that drinking alcohol kills brain cells and can lead to permanent brain damage. Is this really true? Are you putting future brain health at risk when you tip the bottle?
Does Drinking Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?
The good news is that it takes very high levels of alcohol to kill brain cells; more than what enters the bloodstream when a person is drunk. Alcohol has a global effect on the brain, affecting virtually all aspects of brain function, but the effects are usually temporary. What alcohol does impact is the ability of brain cells to communicate with one another. After drinking, communication between brain cells slows down causing speech delays, slurring of speech, memory problems, and reduced reaction times. There’s no doubt that alcohol affects brain function, but drinking alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells, at least in the short term.
Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells in the Long Term?
Despite the fact that drinking alcohol short term doesn’t kill brain cells, there’s mounting evidence that long term alcohol use can result in permanent impairment of the nervous system. It’s unclear whether this is due to the direct impact of the alcohol on the brain or related to the nutritional deficiencies often seen in habitual drinkers. Not getting enough B vitamins can cause neurological impairment and up to eight out of ten alcoholics are deficient in thiamine which is associated with a serious brain disorder called Wenicke- Korsakoff syndrome which presents with mental confusion and coordination problems.
Using alcohol long term also affects the brain indirectly. Chronic alcohol use increases the risk of liver disease which can lead to a condition known as hepatic encephalopathy. This condition causes impaired brain function along with memory problems, personality changes, disorientation, and loss of coordination.
Although a few bouts of drinking alcohol won’t kill brain cells, long term alcohol use can lead to brain impairment which may or may not be reversible depending upon the amount of alcohol drank and for how long. There’s some evidence that children, teenagers, and women may be more susceptible to the long term effects of alcohol than are adult men. This is particularly disturbing in light of the high rate of binge drinking seen in college students.
The Bottom Line?
Drinking alcohol at a party won’t kill brain cells, but can cause communication between them to be temporarily disrupted, leading to global brain dysfunction. This is usually completely reversible. On the other hand, if alcohol use becomes chronic, the neurological consequences can be more serious and difficult to reverse. When it comes to alcohol, moderation is always best.