Memory Maximizers: Binge Drinking & Cognitive Decline; Smoking & Stroke Risk

Here's the latest research to help you keep your brain sharp.

AVOID BINGE DRINKING TO LOWER RISK FOR COGNITIVE DECLINE

Binge drinking—or drinking to get drunk—appears to cause brain damage, and regular bingeing may lead to significantly increased risk for cognitive decline, according to research published in the March 2013 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. In women, binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks in two hours; in men, five or more drinks within the same time period is considered bingeing. The research, which examined the brain effects on laboratory animals of consuming high levels of alcohol over a short time period, found that injury to brain cells can occur with as little as 24 hours of binge-like exposure to alcohol. The researchers found that, after exposure to high levels of alcohol, the levels of proteins associated with brain injury expressed by cells called astroglia in the animals’ brains increased dramatically. In healthier conditions, astroglia do not express this marker at all. “It is important to consider that each successive binge, starting with the very first one, affords some level of damage to the brain,” the study authors concluded. Previous studies in humans have suggested that binge drinking at least once per month in adulthood significantly increases the likelihood of developing dementia later in life.

Binge drinking has also been linked in recent research to damage to the muscle of the heart, increased incidence of insomnia in older adults, inflammation, lasting liver damage, and heightened risk for alcohol addiction, all of which may negatively impact the brain. To avoid these dangers, experts recommend that you:

  • Avoid triggers that might encourage you to binge, such as being around other people who are drinking heavily, or attending events where drinking is the focus.
  • Drink slowly, and eat before drinking to lessen the urge to down alcoholic drinks quickly. Strive to limit your drinks to one an hour, with an optimal daily maximum of one drink for women, and two drinks for men.
  • Intersperse alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic drinks.
  • Find other ways to celebrate, such as dining out, or taking in a movie.
  • Find other ways to reduce stress or depression, such as exercising or listening to music.
  • Limit your exposure to situations that make you feel anxious, insecure, or inferior, and when they are un-avoidable, challenge yourself to face these situations without alcohol.
  • Reduce loneliness by engaging in activities with others that do not involve alcohol.
  • Seek professional help if you cannot stop binge drinking.

SMOKING ELEVATES STROKE RISK, ESPECIALLY IN WOMEN

Scientists have uncovered yet more evidence that quitting smoking is essential to protecting the brain. A large study comparing the risk of lethal stroke among men who smoke with the risk for women who smoke found that women in Western countries are significantly more likely to die of a hemorrhagic (or bleeding) stroke than their male counterparts. Smokers of both sexes face a more than 50 percent increased risk of ischemic stroke (caused by a clot that blocks blood flow to the brain) compared to individuals who do not smoke, according to the research, which was published online Aug. 22, 2013 in the journal Stroke. An analysis of data from 81 studies involving 3,980,359 individuals revealed a 17 percent higher risk for bleeding stroke among female smokers versus male smokers. The researchers theorized that the elevated risk may result from differences in hormones and in the way nicotine affects blood fats. Female smokers are known to experience greater increases in fats, triglycerides, and cholesterol than male smokers.

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