Does drinking affect memory in the elderly?

elderly man drinking

The effects of alcohol in the elderly can include a decline in memory and cognitive abilities

According to a statement by the Alzheimer’s Association, drinking alcohol had been thought to reduce the risk of cognitive decline in some older people, but that view has changed.

A more recent report aimed at answering the question “does drinking affect memory in the elderly?”, presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver, July 2012, indicates more research is needed before a clearer picture emerges.

Over five million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and that figure is expected to rise to 16 million by 2050. Worldwide, the number suffering the disease by 2050 could be as high as 115 million. The dangers of drinking alcohol are among the factors that interest researchers. Among the side effects of alcohol are memory loss and and cognitive impairment, and researchers want to know to what extent these effects of drinking cause problems for seniors.

Iain Lang, a senior lecturer in public health at the University of Exeter’s Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, thinks the pattern of drinking is important, and that even moderate drinking could be harmful. “Older adults should be cautious,” he says, ” … there is a lot we don’t know about this topic”.

Lang and other researchers analyzed data on more than 5,000 people, 65 and older, who were part of the U.S. Health and Retirement Study into the effects of alcohol in 2002. Lang pointed out that this study was the first to look at binge drinking in older adults.

Binge drinking in the elderly

The research found that those who indulged in binge drinking (which was defined as drinking four or more alcoholic beverages at a time) once a month were 62% more likely than those who didn’t to be in the group with the greatest decline in cognitive function, and 27% more likely to display the greatest memory damage.

Those who ‘binged’ twice a month were 147% more likely to be in the group with the greatest cognitive decline and 149% more likely to display the greatest memory loss, the study showed.

Lang pointed out that doctors who warned older patients about excessive drinking should be aware that it’s not just the amount that’s important, but the pattern of drinking. More moderate drinking, and more evenly spaced, would seem to be less harmful.

Long-term study on the effects of alcohol

In a separate study on the effects of drinking, over 1,000 women, 65 and older, were followed for a period of 20 years. At the beginning of the study, their answers revealed that 41% were non-drinkers, 50% were light drinkers (0-7 drinks per week), and 9% were moderate drinkers (7-14 drinks per week).

The study revealed that those who drank more when younger than at the start of the study stood a 30% higher risk of developing cognitive impairment, while those women who started drinking during the study had a 200% increased risk of cognitive impairment. Women who drank seven to 14 units a week toward the end of the study were about 60% more likely to develop cognitive impairment.

Tina Hoang, lead study author and clinical research coordinator at the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center, said

“It may be that the brains of oldest old adults are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, but it is also possible that factors associated with changing alcohol use related to coping or loss could be involved. Clinicians should carefully assess their older patients for both how much they drink and any changes in patterns of alcohol use.”

Heavy drinking can be a factor in dementia

Previous research has indicated that heavy drinking may be to blame for as many as 1 in 4 cases of dementia, so perhaps it’s not just memory loss that can happen as a result of binge drinking, but the onset of dementia itself. Some doctors believe that binge drinking can cause severe memory loss in a person’s 40s. Another study suggests that regular consumption of even two or three drinks a day can bring forward the onset of Alzheimer’s by as much as four or five years.

Older people who enjoy a drink may be asking themselves can alcohol cause memory loss or other problems. Studies like this offer some indication as to the effects of drinking; it’s fairly clear from them that it’s not just the amount an older person drinks, but the pattern of their drinking that’s important, and excessive drinking at an early age can lead to problems later in life due to the side effects of alcohol.

Drinking more, and more often, is probably not a good idea at any time, but binge drinking in elderly people is particularly harmful, and can result in cognitive impairment and memory loss. The effects of drinking don’t abate as we get older (and more ‘used to it’) – in fact, they may get worse.

Having said that, evidence exists that moderate drinking is not only not harmful, but actually helps to prevent certain diseases in older people, so maybe we shouldn’t take this research as a warning not to drink. The effects of alcohol aren’t fully understood and can actually be beneficial in some cases, although admittedly harmful in others. As with so many things, we need to keep a sense of perspective.

Of course, over-indulgence in drink (or for that matter, in drugs), isn’t confined to the elderly, or to teenagers for that matter, or indeed to any single group in society. It can become a problem at any age, and getting the right help can make all the difference.

Drug abuse where you might not expect it: older Americans getting drunk, high too

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