Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Resolutions, part V: Alcohol leaves lasting legacy in brain and heart

New Year’s often brings resolutions to quit or cut back and/or avoid relapse. Quitting or cutting back can be as life-changing as pledges to work out more in 2013 or promises to get a new job for the new year. Here are additional long-term brain and heart considerations about alcohol use disorders, quitting and staying sober. If you don’t have the following conditions now, there are provable connections to getting them years after abstinence.

Heart disease
Heart disease is a leading cause of death in the U.S. and carries a definite link to alcohol misuse despite French studies showing low amounts of red wine benefiting the circulatory system. Acetaldehyde – a byproduct of the metabolism of alcohol – causes hypertension, a.k.a. high blood pressure. In a 2007 Medical University of South Carolina study, 120 alcohol users charted lower blood pressure only 12 weeks after abstaining.

Alcohol itself raids the body of vitamin B (Thiamin) which is essential for a healthy heart. B-deficiency enlarges the heart and creates distended neck veins, narrow pulse pressure, elevated diastolic blood pressure (the second number in your BP) and peripheral edema. Acetaldehyde also physically weakens muscle, the heart being your body’s most important one. Think of how the tongue muscle is weakened from drinking (slurring) and leg muscles are weakened (wobbliness) and the same thing is happening to the heart muscle. However, with the heart, the weakening causes damage that accumulates.

Acetaldehyde also increases cholesterol, especially triglycerides. High cholesterol is a leading indicator of heart trouble on the horizon and the number one condition treated with prescription drugs in the U.S.

Brain damage/mental disease
Cadaever brains have provided conclusive evidence of a brain atrophying (shrinking) after alcohol misuse. However, Dr Ernest Noble of University of California—Irvine says, “Brain damage caused by alcohol, in relatively small quantities can affect the ability of brain cells to make proteins and RNA . . . essential for metabolism and organization of all cells as well as their ability to duplicate themselves.” A former social drinker, he quit drinking at all upon conclusion of his study.

A 2012 study similarly indicates that moderate drinking reduces the production of new brain cells by 40 percent. The November 8, 2012 journal, Neuroscience, reports the level of alcohol intake was not even enough to impair the motor skills of the rats in the study, however, the decrease in the brain’s ability to create new cells could have profound effects on learning and memory later. The area of the brain that produces the neuron cells is the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory. Affecting this part of the brain might not be something immediately noticeable, but over time, weekly drinking could have so dramatically reduced the neurons that learning or remembering things becomes more difficult. The study indicates that people don’t have to be alcoholic to do damage to brain structures and that social drinking may be more harmful to people than is currently perceived by the general public.

The impact on mental health and the many fingers of the mind are varied. On one hand there are those who endure years of heavy drinking with the mind’s fingers remaining as nimble as a pianist’s. Others emerge not so deft. It is believed alcohol increases the chances for Alzheimer’s and earlier onset of dementia. Stanford University research in 2010 also proved that alcohol abuse and the disease of alcoholism cause deficits in working memory and visio-spatial abilities (think: coordination) even after abstinence.

Sociologist William Anixter pointed out in 1990 before the Anxiety Disorders Association’s Washington, DC, conference that 80 percent of Alcoholics suffer from depression. The unanswered question more than two decades later is how much of that was there organically and how much was caused by the alcohol/acetaldehyde. A 2007 study does make the connection between alcoholic liver disease and the mind. The frontal cortex—responsible for reasoning and memory—is more impaired in patients when they have cirrhosis.
--Adapted from Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud

Image: Adamr

(The usual weekly post, SUNDAY SNIPPET, will return 1/5)

Details on the third literary award for Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud, plus the new radio interview replay is available at and please read the new interview with Scott Stevens at Christoph Fisher Books.  Mr. Fisher is an acclaimed international historical fiction novelist from the UK.