One of the most common things people want to know is whether alcohol or marijuana is worse for your brain and overall health. The scientific evidence and the brain imaging work at Amen Clinics show that neither one is good for you. Alcohol is not a health food, and marijuana is not an innocuous substance. But is one of them more damaging than the other?
At first glance, it might seem that alcohol does the most damage to our brain health and general well-being because it is more widely used. Over 85% of American adults say they’ve consumed alcohol at some point in their lives, and nearly 70% say they’ve had a drink in the past year, as reported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Compare that to just 18% of Americans who said they used marijuana in 2019, according to the CDC. Although not as widespread, the harmful effects of marijuana on the brain may be greater. Let’s take a closer look at some of the worst consequences of drinking and marijuana.
CONSEQUENCES OF DRINKING ALCOHOL
Death: Approximately 95,000 people lose their lives due to alcohol-related causes each year. This puts alcohol at #3 on the list of leading preventable causes of death in the U.S., just after tobacco and poor diet/physical inactivity.
Chronic health conditions: Some of the leading causes of alcohol-related deaths are liver disease, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and high blood pressure.
Traffic fatalities: Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) show that in the U.S., approximately 30% of all traffic accident deaths involve drunk driving. An estimated 32 Americans lose their lives each day in crashes where someone is driving drunk.
Alcohol use disorder: For some people, drinking leads to addiction, as 14.5 million people ages 12 and up have an alcohol use disorder, according to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSUDH). Addiction ruins lives and destroys families.
Binge drinking: Over 25% of American adults engaged in binge drinking in the past month. Binge drinking is defined as consuming 5 or more drinks for men and 4 or more drinks for women within a span of about 2 hours. Binge drinking leads to a litany of serious consequences, such as injuries, violence, risky sexual behavior, unwanted pregnancy, and more.
Reduced brain volume: Drinking alcohol, even just 1-7 drinks per week, is associated with brain shrinkage, according to a study in JAMA Neurology. Another study in BMJ shows that having just 1-2 glasses of wine per day is associated with atrophy in the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in mood, memory, and learning.
Heightened risk of dementia: Research shows that people who are moderate to heavy drinkers are at a 57% increased risk of developing dementia. Brain SPECT imaging scans of heavy drinkers at Amen Clinics show low blood flow in the brain, which is the #1 brain imaging predictor that a person will develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Poor decision-making: Even in people who are light drinkers, consuming alcohol impacts brain function and can lead to bad decisions. When people drink, it lowers blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in impulse control, judgment, and forethought. It makes people more likely to say or do things that get you in trouble—relationship trouble, financial trouble, or legal trouble.
Depression and mental health issues: Some people use alcohol as a way to self-medicate feelings of depression or anxiety. Although drinking may temporarily provide relief from these feelings, it ultimately exacerbates symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
CONSEQUENCES OF MARIJUANA USE
Traffic fatalities: Research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that traffic fatalities increased by 4% and accidents with injuries jumped by close to 6% in states that had legalized marijuana.
Increased risk of depression and suicidality: Most people associate marijuana with getting high and happy, but a 2019 review in JAMA Psychiatry concluded that cannabis use as an adolescent is associated with a greater risk of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts.
Fuels anxiety: In some people, using marijuana with higher levels of THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, increases anxiousness, according to a study in Neurology.
Impairs memory: Using marijuana temporarily disrupts memory formation and puts you at risk for cognitive dysfunction later in life, according to research in JAMA Internal Medicine. Researchers have found that THC attaches to receptors in the memory centers of the brain, including the hippocampus.
Decreases brain health: In an Amen Clinics brain imaging study on the drivers of brain aging published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, cannabis abuse was second only to schizophrenia in accelerating brain aging. Schizophrenia was associated with 4 years of premature aging while cannabis abuse represented 2.8 years of accelerated aging. Alcohol abuse represented 0.6 years of accelerated aging and came in fifth on the list after bipolar disorder (1.6 years of accelerated aging) and ADD/ADHD (1.4 years of accelerated aging).
THE ALCOHOL VS. MARIJUANA CONCLUSION
So which substance is worse? Alcohol has more far-reaching consequences because it is consumed by so many more people, but marijuana is worse when it comes to its direct impact on brain aging. The bottom line in terms of brain health and overall well-being is to eliminate or reduce the use of both these substances.
Addictions, alcohol use disorders, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.