Alcohol’s Negative Effect on the Aging Brain

The Alzheimer’s Association International Conference was hosted this month in Vancouver, Canada. A pair of studies investigated how binging on alcohol, or even changes in drinking habits can have serious impact on cognitive brain function in older drinkers were slated for presentation at the meeting. Binging has multiple harmful effects from an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attack to making it more likely that the person will suffer bodily injury. These studies were ground-breaking in terms of measuring the cognitive impact of heavy drinking and alterations in drinking patterns.

The first study looked at information gathered from over 5,000 subjects aged 65 years and above through the Health and Retirement Study. The longitudinal study is conducted every other year and constitutes a representative sampling of adults in the United States. Information was collected beginning in 2002 and subjects were then tracked for the next eight years. For study purposes, binge drinking was defined as consuming at least four consecutive alcoholic beverages. Researchers used a tool known as the Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status to measure memory and cognitive function.

Just over eight percent of men and just one and one half percent of women reported binging at least one time per month. Around four percent of men and one half of one percent of women said that they binged two times per month or more. Those who engaged in binging a minimum of one time per month had a 62 percent increase in the likelihood that they would experience the most significant 10 percent drop in cognitive ability and had a 27 percent greater likelihood of undergoing the strongest 10 percent of decline in memory. Subjects who engaged in binge drinking at least two times per month were two and a half times more apt to see the most significant 10 percent reduction in cognitive performance and the same rate of memory loss.

The second study, carried out in San Francisco, CA followed older women who changed their drinking habits over a 20 year time span. The study found that any increase in drinking resulted in corresponding mental impairment. For example, moderate drinkers experienced a 60 percent rise in their risk of experiencing mental deficits and non-drinkers who began drinking developed a 200 percent rise in their risk of mental declines.

These findings have yet to be peer-reviewed, but clearly demonstrate a link between heavy drinking and mental impairment. This is important since there is a proven connection between cognitive decline and a person’s risk of developing dementia. Most people are interested in protecting their cognitive strength and therefore physicians would do well to advise older patients about the risks of drinking alcohol especially increasing the amount of alcohol they consume.