Drinking three cans of beer a week may be linked to cognitive decline


Drinking three cans of beer a week may be linked to cognitive decline


Research published in July 2022 has found associations between moderate drinking, iron accumulation in the brain, and cognitive decline. The study showed that as little as three cans of beer a week can be linked to higher iron levels in the brain. This higher iron level is also associated with cognitive issues, which has led the researchers to hypothesise that drinking promotes cognitive decline.


Existing UK Biobank data for 20,729 people was analysed to find this association. As this was an observational study, causality must still be proven by controlled studies.

The corresponding author of the study, Dr. Anya Topiwala, of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford in the U.K., said:

“I’ve been interested in the possibility of iron being responsible for alcohol-related brain damage since I read a small study in male alcohol-dependent individuals where they observed higher iron. I was intrigued to see if a similar phenomenon occurred in moderate drinkers.”

“My takeaway,” said Dr. Topiwala, “is that elevated iron is a possible mechanism by which alcohol could damage the brain and lead to memory problems. Understanding the mechanism of damage is of course important if you want to be able to intervene in patients.”


48.6% of the records analysed were of female individuals, and the mean age was 55 years. Alcohol intake was self-reported by participants via questionnaires, with cognitive function being researched through a series of executive function tests. This included a trail-making test, fluid intelligence with puzzle tasks, and a reaction time task based on the game Snap. 2.7% of the participants never drank, and the average intake of alcohol was around 17.5 units per week – the equivalent of over seven cans of beer, around 8.5 medium glasses of wine, or just under 18 shots of gin, rum, vodka, whiskey, tequila, or sambuca.

The presence of iron in the brain was assessed indirectly using MRI scans. The primary areas of interest were regions in the basal ganglia, an area of the brain linked to emotional, cognitive, and movement-related functions.


Analysis found that people who drank seven or more units of alcohol per week showed markers of increased iron accumulation in the brain.

“In this study,” said Dr. Topiwala, “we didn’t find evidence for higher iron at four units and above, only seven units and above.” This would be about three beers in a week.

“In a separate study we did, however, we found linear harmful associations — as in [there was] no evidence for any safe level over zero [alcohol units],” she added.

The analysis also revealed that individuals with higher iron levels in the brain were also more likely to have cognitive issues.


Original study


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