The Surprising Truth about How Alcohol Affects Your Dementia Risk

The Truth about Alcohol and How It Affects Your Brain

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Alcohol drinks are frequently cited in medical news, both for their benefits as well as for the harm that alcohol misuse and addiction causes. So, what do those reports say about your mind on alcohol? Does alcohol impact the functioning of your brain? Does it affect your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease?

In a word: yes. But how?

Is Alcohol Good or Bad for Your Brain?

The answer depends on several factors, but two of the more researched factors include the amount of alcohol consumed and whether someone is a APOE e4 carrier.

Amount of Alcohol

  • Excessive Amounts of Alcohol

Multiple research and observational studies have demonstrated that people who drink high amounts of alcohol are at an increased risk of developing dementia. Alcohol-related brain damage may account for approximately 10% of all dementia cases.

Imaging tests of the brains of high alcohol drinkers demonstrate atrophy (brain shrinkage), loss of white matter, decreased neurons and other changes similar to the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease

Cognitive impairments among excessive alcohol drinkers include:

According to research conducted on the risk factors for young onset dementia, alcohol intoxication as a late teenager is one of the highest predictors of men who will develop younger-onset dementia.

  • Light to Moderate Amounts of Alcohol

    Moderate alcohol drinking is classified as drinking one alcoholic drink a day for women and two a day for men. Light drinking describes those who drink less than moderate drinkers but more than those who totally abstain from alcohol.

    In a study that involved over 3000 adults over the age of 75, light to moderate drinking was associated with a 42% lower risk of Alzheimer's disease and a 29% lower risk of all types of dementia.

    One study found that among women who were over the age of 90, a decrease in alcohol consumption was associated with an increase in the development of mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

    Another study considered how alcohol consumption affected people with a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment. (MCI sometimes, but not always, progresses into dementia.) This study demonstrated that light to moderate alcohol consumption was associated with a decreased chance of mild cognitive impairment progressing into full dementia. Participants who never drank alcohol had a higher chance of developing dementia than those who were light to moderate drinkers, while heavy drinkers were the most likely to progress to dementia.

    APOE e4 Carriers

    Of interest, researchers in one study identified the participants who were APOE e4 carriers and those who did not carry this gene. (APOE e4 is a gene that is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease.) Study participants who were light to moderate alcohol drinkers and who carried the APOE e4 gene were at an increased risk of cognitive decline and memory loss, while light to moderate drinkers who did not carry the APOE e4 gene demonstrated improved learning ability and memory.

    Does the Type of Alcohol Matter?

    It depends on whom you ask. Research has come to different conclusions about this question. Multiple studies have cited wine as specifically having protective effects on people's memory and cognitive ability. Other studies, however, have concluded that wine, beer and liquor all have similar effects on cognition.

    *Disclaimer*

    There are some people that should not drink alcohol. This group includes but is not limited to alcoholics, people who have Wernicke-Korakoff syndrome, those taking certain medications that could negatively interact with alcohol, people with certain medical conditions such as liver disease and pancreatitis, those who are under the legal age to drink, women who are (or are attempting to become) pregnant and those who are operating a vehicle or performing other complex tasks.

    Other studies have found that drinking alcohol has other health risks.

    Sources:

    Age and Aging. 2011 Jul;40(4):456-63. Current alcohol consumption and its relationship to incident dementia: results from a 3-year follow-up study among primary care attenders aged 75 years and older. http://ageing.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2011/02/23/ageing.afr007.full

    Alcohol and Alcoholism. 2014 Jan-Feb;49(1):17-22. The relationship between midlife and late life alcohol consumption, APOE e4 and the decline in learning and memory among older adults. http://alcalc.oxfordjournals.org/content/49/1/17.abstract

    Alzheimer's Research and Therapy. 2013 5(1); 3. Alcohol-related dementia: an update of the evidence. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3580328/

    The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2014 Apr 26. pii: S1064-7481(14)00136-5. Alcohol Consumption Patterns and Cognitive Impairment in Older Women.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24862680

    Dementia Collaborative Research Center. Your Brain Matters. Alcohol- Evidence. Accessed May 28, 2014. http://www.yourbrainmatters.org.au/brain_health/evidence/alcohol

    Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 | Chapter Three. 

    JAMA Internal Medicine. 2013 Sep 23;173(17):1612-8. Risk factors in late adolescence for young-onset dementia in men: a nationwide cohort study. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23939347

    La Revue du Praticien. 2014 Apr;64(4):462-5. [Cognitive impairment of alcohol-dependent subject]. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24855773

    Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences. 2009 Feb;63(1):43-9. Alcohol consumption and transition of mild cognitive impairment to dementia. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19154211

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