Even Casual Drinking May Lead to Dementia

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If you want to keep your mind sharp as you age, you may want to limit how much you quaff. A new study found that even moderate consumption of alcohol can worsen your brain health.

For years, researchers have known that high levels of alcohol consumption can lead to poor health outcomes, including a greater risk of cancer, heart problems, and mental challenges such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Credit: Jason Scragz/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

But a new study shows that even casual drinking — or quantities of about five to seven drinks per week — can triple your risk of mental decline as you move into middle age and older.

The study, published in The BMJ, appears to overturn previous accepted standards of drinking, which held that moderate drinking was essentially benign and low levels of drinking might even confer positive benefits. The Oxford University researchers behind the new study suggest that the science behind current drinking guidelines may be hazy at best.

When it comes to moderate drinking, “the long term effects of non-dependent alcohol consumption on the brain are poorly understood,” write the authors in The BMJ.

For the study, the researchers tracked the drinking patterns and health outcomes of 550 men and women over a 30-year period. Importantly, they limited their study to individuals who were not “alcohol dependent” as a way to focus on more casual drinkers.

Related: People Who Mix Energy Drinks With Alcohol Act More Drunk

Ultimately, they found that those who consumed 30 units per week, or roughly 12 to 15 drinks, had the highest risk of mental decline in comparison to teetotalers, or those who didn’t drink alcohol. But the evidence also shows that moderate drinkers experienced three times the risk of developing “hippocampal atrophy,” a degenerative brain condition that is an early warning sign of dementia.

Known as the brain’s memory bank, the hippocampus is vital to healthy functioning and crucial for recall and learning, and it plays a key part in a person’s language capability.

“Participants drinking higher levels of alcohol over the study experienced a faster decline of lexical fluency compared with abstainers,” write the study authors. “Lexical fluency involves selecting and retrieving information based on spelling (orthography) and has characteristically been associated with frontal executive function.”

Adding to the Danger

“Alcohol dependence is already established as a major cause of dementia,” writes Killian Welch, a consultant neuropsychiatrist, in a related editorial appearing in The BMJ.

The new study, backed by a longitudinal approach, suggests that healthy levels of alcohol consumption are likely oversold.

“It certainly strengthens the view that if alcohol does confer beneficial effects on health, the link is probably confined to low intakes of no more than a unit a day,” writes Welch.

Related: Walking May Reverse Effects of Dementia

While the authors caution that their new findings are observational, the supporting evidence creates a case showing that the severity of mental decline is correspondent to drinking volume.

“As intake increases, so does the risk to health, probably in a dose-dependent manner,” explains Welch. “Heavy consumption is associated with potentially severe impairments in memory and executive function, even when other obvious risk factors are absent.”

Ultimately, the findings may spur greater scientific debate about what level is appropriate from a health standpoint. To that end, the findings “call into question the current U.S. guidelines, which suggest that up to 24.5 units a week is safe for men,” report the study authors.

Richard Scott

Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.