Excessive alcohol consumption linked to cognitive ageing

Published 15 January 2014

Excessive alcohol consumption in men during midlife is associated with faster cognitive ageing, according to a new study published in the journal of Neurology.

The researchers at University College London found that in men there were no differences in memory and cognitive function among alcohol abstainers, quitters, and light or moderate alcohol drinkers. However, excessive alcohol consumption  - which was classified as more than four and a half units of alcohol a day - was associated with faster decline in all cognitive functions measured compared with light to moderate alcohol consumption.

The findings are less clear in women but indicate that heavy drinking in men significantly increases cognitive ageing.

By taking information from middle-aged people, rather than collecting data from older people who may have already adjusted their intake due to health considerations later in life, the findings give us more information about the effects of alcohol over time.

Data was collected from 5,054 men and 2,099 women from the Whitehall II civil service cohort study with an average age of 56 years (range 44–69 years). Alcohol consumption was then assessed three times in the 10 years preceding the first cognitive assessment (1997–1999). Cognitive tests were subsequently repeated in 2002–2004 and 2007–2009.

Alzheimer's Society comment:

'We've known for some time that drinking excessive amounts of alcohol is bad for your brain. This study shows that drinking more than four and a half units of alcohol a day makes your brain age faster, which increases your risk of developing dementia. Previous research has also shown that by keeping your heart as healthy as possible, you can also protect your brain, so it's important to exercise and eat a healthy diet.

'One in three people over the age of 65 will develop dementia and currently there is no cure so we must continue to fund research like this to understand ways of reducing our risk, and to help develop effective treatments before the damage is done.'

Dr Alison Cook
Director of External Affairs
Alzheimer's Society

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