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Binge drinking in older age speeds up cognitive decline

All it takes is four or more drinks in one sitting once a month

Caroline White

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Older adults who binge drink may be speeding up their risk of cognitive decline, suggests preliminary research, presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver today.

Researchers from the University of Exeter analysed data from 5075 US adults aged 65 and older over eight years. Cognitive function and memory were assessed using telephone interviews (Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status).

Binge drinking (four or more drinks in one sitting) once a month or more was reported by 8.3% of men and 1.5% of women; binge drinking twice a month or more was reported by 4.3% of men and 0.5% of women.

Those who said they binge drank once a month were 62% more likely to be in the group experiencing the highest decline in cognitive function, and were 27% more likely to be in the group experiencing the highest amount of memory decline.

The equivalent figures for those who said they binge drank twice a month or more were 147% and 149%, respectively.

Another preliminary study by researchers from the US National Institute for Health Research and the University of California measured how much alcohol 1300 women aged 65 and above drank over a 20 year period.

The researchers assessed the participants at the end of the study for mild cognitive impairment and dementia. It found that heavy alcohol use in earlier life, moderate use in later life, and taking up drinking in later life, all increased the risk of cognitive impairment.

Women who reported drinking more in the past than at the beginning of the study were at 30% increased risk of developing cognitive impairment. Moderate drinkers at baseline or at midpoint had similar risk of cognitive impairment as non-drinkers.

But moderate drinkers in the late phase of the study were roughly 60% more likely to develop cognitive impairment, and those who took up drinking later in life ran a 200% increased risk.

Commenting on the research, Dr Anne Corbett, Research Manager at the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “There has been a lot of research into the link between alcohol and dementia. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that while an occasional tipple could actually help to protect the brain, binge drinking could be linked to an increased cognitive decline.”

Dr Angelique Mavrodaris, Clinical Fellow in Public Health at Warwick Medical School, said the research emphasised “the pressing need for wider public health action on alcohol use - particularly in light of increasing alcohol consumption trends in both the young and the old.”

She added: “Although odds ratios for associations between binge drinking once a month and decline in cognitive functioning were not statistically significant, binge drinking twice or more per month was associated with significantly increased risk of cognitive decline.

It is not clear if drinking history was taken into account or if the impact of additional confounders such as comorbidity was evaluated. Further research regarding type of alcohol is necessary.”

Dr Marie Janson, Director of Development at Alzheimer's Research UK, warned: “In a country with major concerns over binge drinking, these new findings should be taken seriously by people of all ages. Many people will drink to relax and it’s important to keep an eye on the amount of alcohol we consume. The findings make clearer the relationship between alcohol use and cognitive decline.”

She added that the best advice was to keep alcohol consumption light throughout life to reap some benefits and protect against the risks of over-indulging.

Research references:

  • ‘Heavy Episodic Drinking and Risk of Cognitive Decline in Older Adults’ by Ian Laing et al. 
  • '20 year alcohol consumption patterns and cognitive impairment in older women’ by Tina Hoang et al.

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