The Grapevine

Drinking Alcohol Or Not, Both Can Increase Dementia Risk, If Overdone

When compared to moderate drinking, both abstinence and excessive alcohol consumption in middle age were linked to an increased risk of dementia, according to a new study.

The paper titled "Alcohol consumption and risk of dementia: 23-year follow-up of Whitehall II cohort study" was published in the British Medical Journal on Aug. 1.

Researchers at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research and University College London followed more than 9,000 British civil servants for more than two decades. The participants were between the ages of 35 and 55 when the study began in the mid-1980s.

Hospital records were used to document admissions for alcohol-related chronic diseases and cases of dementia from 1991. Meanwhile, alcohol consumption and dependence were measured in assessments from 1985 and 1993, when participants were at an average age of 50 years.

Over an average follow-up of 23 years, a total of 397 cases of dementia were recorded. The average age at which dementia was diagnosed was 76.

Those who abstained from drinking in midlife were associated with a 50 percent higher risk of dementia when compared to moderate drinkers i.e. those who consumed between 1 and 14 units of alcohol per week.

Among excessive drinkers (over 14 units per week), the study found the risk of dementia increased by 17 percent with every 7-unit increase in weekly alcohol intake.

"These results suggest that abstention and excessive alcohol consumption are associated with an increased risk of dementia," the authors wrote, adding the underlying mechanisms were likely to be different for the two groups.

Excessive consumption or binge-drinking could lead to alcohol-related brain damage, which may explain how it is tied to dementia. The link between abstinence and dementia, on the other hand, appears difficult to understand at this point.

One theory relates to how an active social life might help stimulate the mind and lower the risk of dementia. Given that, it is possible abstainers may be socializing lesser than moderate drinkers.

"As this study only looked at people’s drinking in midlife, we don’t know about their drinking habits earlier in adulthood, and it is possible that this may contribute to their later life dementia risk," said Dr. Sara Imarisio, the head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK. "People who completely abstain from alcohol may have a history of heavy drinking and this can make it difficult to interpret the links between drinking and health."

The researchers cautioned that people who abstain from alcohol should not attempt to start drinking based off such findings from epidemiological studies. Even though moderate drinking is considered safe, individuals should not ignore risk factors relating to mental illness, liver disease, cancer and more.