The next time you agree to that third cocktail, bear in mind that excessive alcohol consumption eats up brain cells -- particularly in women. And it doesn't take long.
This is worse for her than it is for him
The lasting physical harm caused by alcohol abuse is well documented, but according to a new study, the effects are felt more intensively by women than men and much faster. Potential problems include heart and liver damage, as well as long-term brain shrinkage.
Research carried out by the Mannheim Central Institute for Mental Health has revealed that heavy drinking takes its toll on women far more than it does on men. Alcohol wears away cells and reduces brain volume -- moreover, at an alarming rate. With men, the process tends to take much longer.
In short, a woman who's been hitting the bottle regularly for just five years will have a brain that's shrunk to the same size of a man who's been drinking for 10 years.
Women more vulnerable
Even though women tend to start drinking later and generally consume less liquor than men, they soon catch up when it comes to the organ damage incurred.
The Mannheim report also concludes that more women than ever suffer from alcoholism. In the past, the ratio of alcoholic men and women was four to one, but women are beginning to drink their men under the table -- these days, the ration looks more like two to one.
In Germany, some two million people are alcoholics, although the report's author Alexander Diehl said that's only the thin end of the wedge. "Up to 10 million people in Germany need treatment and counselling," he pointed out.
Fifty percent of the 76 women and 82 men participating in the Mannheim study were serious alcoholics, admitted to a six-week stationary rehabilitation clinic. Immediately after being discharged, their brain volume was measured by tomograph and compared to that of the parallel group, made up of men and women who consume just moderate amounts of alcohol.
Over the following weeks, the experts monitored brain changes throughout withdrawal. Their findings confirmed that brain volume in women under the influence decreased faster than in men.
But it's worth going -- and staying -- on the wagon. A recovering alcoholic who stays off the sauce will find his or her brain can soon be salvaged. Not only will it regain volume, it will also begin to function better.
"New connections can develop between the nerve cells," explained Diehl, "which means they can take over the tasks performed by the cells that have died. And new nerve cells will also form."