Drinking Habits That Age Your Brain Faster, Say Experts
We only get one brain; anything we can do to fortify our brain's health is an investment in our longevity. Having an agile mind that can grasp comprehension, retention, focus, and creativity will keep us feeling younger and happier—but this all hinges on how well you take care of yourself and manage your health. Even your eating and drinking habits can age your brain if you're not careful.
As you age, your brain will naturally change over time. People may experience brain shrinkage or loss of mass, changes in white matter, and fewer neurotransmitter messages with less dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and norepinephrine action. This can result in slight memory loss, trouble learning new skills, and difficulty multitasking. Though this degree of brain aging side effects is generally considered to be normal, more severe or extreme age-related neurological shifts may signify the onset of a more critical health condition like dementia or even Alzheimer's disease.
There are many factors that can affect how quickly your brain ages, with one of the major factors being your diet. In fact, there are some common drinking habits that can cause our noggin to age faster than it should. From drinking too much alcohol and skipping water to choosing sugar-rich beverages, here are drinking habits that can age your brain faster. For more information on ways to best support your overall brain health, be sure to also check out This Is The Best Diet for Your Brain, New Study Finds.
Skipping out on green tea
OK, so the habit of not drinking green tea can't actually make your brain age faster. However, drinking green tea on a regular basis can give your aging brain a break.
Research shows that drinking green tea is associated with reduced risk of cognitive impairment in middle-aged and older adults. It's been found to improve memory and attention, as well as overall brain function. So no, skipping out on the green tea won't harm your brain, but you'll miss out on plenty of cognitive benefits.
Drinking to get intoxicated
When you're in a new social setting, alcohol is a fast way to feel more social and at ease. If you feel uncomfortable, you may have more drinks than you genuinely should, making you feel intoxicated and building up toxins that harm your brain cells, warns Dr. William Li, the CEO, president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation.
"High levels of alcohol can kill brain neurons in short order, so drinking excessively to get drunk can cause brain damage," Dr. Li explains.
In the short term, your brain can repair itself but repeated drinking to get drink builds up the toxic effects in the brain and causes neuroinflammation.
"This becomes obvious you're your cognitive functions are impaired, and your personality changes," he adds. "The toxic effects of alcohol will also damage your other organs, like your liver and heart."
Rather than going hard, go easy with one glass of red wine during a social gathering. This will give you te calmness you're seeking without damage to your brain.
Drinking beverages high in sugar
Although the brain needs glucose (aka sugar) to function, too much can be a bad thing, warns Tara Tomaino, RD, the nutrition director of The Park.
As she explains, many studies have linked excess sugar consumption with cognitive impairment. This would be particularly concerning for people with diabetes—but why might this be the case?
"As the disease can cause a restriction of blood vessels, reducing the amount of blood flow to the brain," says Tomaino.
Giving up sugar is a difficult feat, but you can take baby steps by replacing your go-to sodas, juices, teas, and slushies with unsweetened varieties. Tomaino also suggests diluting sweet drinks with water or gradually reduce the amount of sugar that you add on your own.
"Don't worry—your tastebuds will adjust," adds Tomaino.
Not drinking enough water
According to Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, author of the Sports Nutrition Playbook and member of our Expert Medical Board, not drinking enough fluid or being dehydrated can age your brain faster.
"First of all, dehydration can contribute to fatigue and feeling tired. So to help keep your mind alert, be sure to drink adequate water and fluid throughout the day," says Goodson. "Dehydration can also contribute to reduced mental acuity, or mental sharpness, so drinking adequate water and fluid is necessary to keep your brain functioning properly throughout the day."
Drinking a glass or two each night
Bad news: If you enjoy coming home to Netflix and a tall glass of pinot, you could be impacting your mind and memory. According to the Nature Scientific Reports research, 353 participants underwent MRI scans showing that moderate alcohol consumption—fewer than three drinks per day for females, four drinks per day or less for males—was associated with a smaller brain volume.
If you need to cut back, consider putting something else in a wine glass to maintain the ritual, without the negative influence, recommends Karen Raden, MS, RD, CCN, LDN, an integrative nutritionist at Raden Wellness.
"This is a psychological approach for those drinking alcohol based on the ritual of drinking versus the need to drink," says Raden.
Drinking by yourself
While, of course, there is nothing wrong with enjoying a glass of something alone occasionally, if it's a regular habit, it could be one of the first signs of addiction and overconsumption.
"Excessive drinking that causes neurological disorders, liver disease, and a host of other physical and mental health problems. Alcohol addiction leads to premature brain aging and cognitive disorders," says Dr. Li.
Consider saving a drink for social times rather than popping open a bottle of something and downing the whole thing solo.
"Whether you are going to celebrate an event or just enjoy a drink, save it for when you are with company," he says. "You and your pals can keep an eye on each other."
Remember, if you find yourself drinking alone frequently, thinking about alcohol for much of the day, or spending time obtaining alcohol regularly, you may need to find help through a support group or a rehabilitation center.
Drinking a lot of caffeine
"Moderate amounts of caffeine has been associated with preventing cognitive decline, and reducing the risk of developing Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease, and it may even improve mood and concentration," says Lisa Young, Ph.D., RDN, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim and member of our medical expert advisory board.
"However," she says, "Moderation is key and too much caffeine may cause sleep disturbances in some people," which on a regular basis may lead to faster cell aging.
Also, like many things, overdoing it may be damaging to your brain. One study found that high coffee consumption, which is above 6 cups a day, was associated with an increased risk of dementia.
Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach
Want to know something scary? According to Dr. Li, drinking on an empty stomach can lead to the rapid absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream and even build up in your brain within five to 10 minutes of taking a sip.
"Although each person's body metabolizes alcohol at a slightly different rate, drinking with food slows down absorption in the stomach. Food also dilutes the alcohol content, so levels do not build up as quickly or at such high levels in the blood and brain for each drink," explains Dr. Li.
Rather than boozing when you haven't had food in a while, pair your beverage with foods that are high in protein, fiber, and healthy fats—all of which work to slow alcohol absorption.
"Foods like oily fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to lower inflammation in the body," he adds.
A previous version of this story was published on January 11, 2022. It has since been updated to include additional copy and proofreading revisions, as well as updated contextual links.